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A Drop in the Ocean

Illustration by Ryan Ward

Victims suggest innocence. And innocence, by the inexorable logic that governs all relational terms, suggests guilt.

—Susan Sontag

TV may not have a clue how to cover the death of a famous intellectual, but an epochal tsunami sure makes it feel right at home. Within hours of last week’s calamity in Asia, the cable networks had already launched into megadeath overkill. CNN gave its coverage the tag line "Tsunami Disaster" (replacing its initial attempt, "Asia Tsunami," which sounded more like a porn actress than a catastrophe). Reporters began churning out human-interest stories, from the ersatz "Sophie’s Choice" of the water-buffeted Aussie mum who had to decide which of her sons to let go (unlike in the novel, both kids survived) to reports that Jet Li had injured his toe protecting his daughter in the Maldives — don’t laugh, he acts with that foot! Hour after hour, the networks recycled each fresh snippet of footage: waves pummeling beaches, graying tourists clinging to balconies, children’s small bodies lying in heartbreaking rows. While pedants explained the difference between tsunamis and tidal waves, anchors kept warning us that we might be disturbed by the upcoming footage — as if we weren’t wishing they’d shut up so we could see whatever you called it.

And really, who could blame anyone for being riveted? The number of casualties was so staggering — 150,000 dead, another half-million badly injured — that you could watch for hours without getting your mind around it. The vast majority of casualties were locals, yet as in the 2002 Bali bombing, our media paid disproportionate attention to Western tourists. This was a pity, for nothing in English was more harrowingly poetic than the testimony of a woman, Chanjira Sangkarak, from the demolished Thai village of Nam Khem, who told New York Times reporter Seth Mydans that she’d always been afraid of ghosts. But barely living through the tidal wave had changed her. "Now, I wasn’t afraid," she said. "I wasn’t afraid of ghosts and I wasn’t afraid of the dead because I was dead already, too, and I had survived."

Still, the focus on tourists wasn’t mere ethnocentrism. Viewers desperately wanted to hear precisely what happened, and most poor Sri Lankans or Indonesians don’t speak English. It was fascinating to witness the emotional abyss separating studio talking heads, forced to spend hours screwing their faces into looks of compassionate concern, from shell-shocked European holidaymakers like the British woman who, six full days after the tsunami, sat in a wheelchair sobbing guiltily for not dying: "It’s not fair on the people who didn’t make it."

The Indonesians and Sri Lankans who did make it must reckon themselves lucky that there were tourists to help publicize the event. It will bring them billions of dollars in relief that didn’t go to, say, Bangladesh back in 1991 when a typhoon killed more than 130,000 souls whose deaths barely registered on the international radar. Be honest. Had you ever heard of it? Here, the tourists served as our surrogates, our there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I’s. While most of us can’t imagine dying of starvation or being hacked to pieces by one’s neighbors, we’ve all stood on the beach and pictured what it might be like to see a tsunami coming. Hey, this could’ve happened to me.

I myself spent hours watching TV, then went on the Internet to get riper footage, and not because I was getting off on the suffering. I just wanted to see the damn wave. Like most people, all I’d previously known of tsunamis came from Hollywood disaster pictures or those Japanese prints with huge curling waves. Who knew the problem wasn’t the wall of water’s height, but that it roared forward like a runaway train? No, wait. That’s a lousy metaphor. For what makes a tsunami so awesome is precisely the fact that it’s natural. Unlike Darfur or Fallujah, last week’s calamity was not man-made. As the Israeli daily Haaretz editorialized, such a natural disaster is a crushing reminder to security-mad nations like Israel (and, one could add, the U.S.) that "absolute existential security" is out of the question.

Not that we ought to genuflect before such acts of God like stupefied peasants or insurance companies. Back when the Titanic sank, Thomas Hardy wrote a famous poem, "Convergence of the Twain," in which, with characteristic cosmic fatalism, he pinned the catastrophe on "The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything." Maybe so. Then again, while no human being was responsible for putting that iceberg in the ocean liner’s path, countless passengers died because the ship’s owners hadn’t put lifeboats on the lower decks that served "the lower orders." The victims died as much from class bias as from Immanent Willfulness.

The same thing happened with the Indian Ocean tsunami, although it, too, had its cosmic apologists. "This is a moment to feel deeply bad," wrote The New York Times’ normally chirpy David Brooks, "for the dead and for those of us who have no explanation." Well, yeah. But as we wallow in how incomprehensible the tragedy was, it’s worth remembering that we can explain why tens of thousands lost their lives. There are the Thai authorities who, having apparently studied DVDs of Jaws to see how to do it wrong, didn’t release warnings of possible trouble because it was the height of the tourist season. There are the slipshod Asian governments that, despite the area’s famously dangerous fault lines, never spent the $20 million or so it would take to install the kind of tsunami detectors that monitor the Pacific Ocean. And, of course, there are the wealthy elites of South and Southeast Asia who, greedy for all the spoils of modernity, remain content to let most of their fellow citizens live without proper roads, proper shelter, proper communications.

In America, anyway, these foreign leaders took less public abuse than President Bush, whose response to the catastrophe was actually less cold than shockingly clueless. Within hours of the tsunami, everybody I knew was talking about how these terrible events could be parlayed into a PR bonanza for the U.S. Surely the administration would capitalize on this unhappy chance to show the world, especially the Muslim world, that we will use our enormous resources to save lives, especially Muslim lives. After all, this was a White House communications team so brilliant that it framed Dubya’s head next to Mount Rushmore during a speech in South Dakota and transformed his stumbling inability to discuss the Iraq occupation into proof of steely resolve.

But evidently Karl Rove’s genius at image--making doesn’t travel beyond the U.S. border, nor is the Bush administration as good at seeming generous as at talking tough. (When Undersecretary of State John Bolton was asked about a possible -carrot-and-stick approach to Iran, he memorably replied, "I don’t do carrots.") The vacationing Bush didn’t show up to offer condolences for 72 hours, the administration’s initial offer of $15 million in relief was embarrassingly paltry (Bush’s inauguration will cost $40 million), and Colin "What have I done to deserve this?" Powell spent his final days at State defending the U.S. against U.N. official Jan Egeland’s charge that the Western nations were being "stingy." By the time it finally got into gear, the White House was behind the PR curve. Indeed, at a time when oil-rich Arab nations were doing shamefully little to help their fellow Muslims, it was America that appeared shamed into generosity.

And maybe we were. Possibly because we see so much suffering on our TV screens, it’s become a national delusion that America is singularly benevolent in doling out foreign aid. More than half the country thinks we give nearly a quarter of our GNP to help other, less prosperous countries. In fact, we are amazingly cheap: We actually give less than one-half of one percent of our GNP. (They also skimp in France and Britain, whose sanctimony about America becomes nauseating once you see the figures.) Although every single American has spent $531 for the war in Iraq, he or she gives a mere $73 a year through the government in foreign aid. And lest we think this, like everything wicked, is George W. Bush’s fault, it’s worth noting that he actually pushed through the biggest increase in foreign aid since JFK.

Sadly, we are no more generous as private citizens. The U.S. is the most prosperous country in history. Even those on our welfare rolls enjoy a standard of living many times higher than the average worker in Meulaboh, the western Sumatra city where nearly half of its 50,000 residents were killed by the tidal wave. Although our wealth and their poverty are connected, the average American gives only slightly more than $17 a year to foreign aid (the average Frenchman only $3!). And when you consider that moguls like Bill Gates boost the per capita average by giving away, oh, $5 billion or so a year, that means the rest of us are giving only three or four bucks — frappuccino money! — to fight the hunger, disease and dehumanizing nullity that menace billions like an invisible tsunami.

Although our newscasts now ring with encouraging tales of international aid for the tidal wave’s victims — on Monday, the two Bushes and Bill Clinton stood together like the Three Tenors — it would be even more heartening if it didn’t take nature’s capricious cruelty to make us share our bounty with those who spend their days on the cusp of death and disaster. After all, just because the universe is arbitrary and unfair, that doesn’t mean we ought to follow its lead.