Thoughts on the Unthinkable

The tsunami in South Asia caused unimaginable death and devastation. The sheer enormity of the event is difficult to assimilate, intellectually and emotionally. We asked five thinkers how they comprehended the disaster.

'The natural world we had taken for granted'

Robert Coles

The tsunami tragedy in South Asia saddened me for the tens of thousands who died, for the tens of thousands who suffer as survivors. It also took me back to 1938, when a hurricane lashed Greater Boston. I was a fifth-grader then, and I still vividly recall leaving the Roger Wolcott School for the walk home, which was not far -- when all of a sudden I saw my mother standing across the street. Her face registered concern, and her words told me why: "A hurricane is coming, and let's get back to the house right away."

Those words have stayed with me, as has the memory of her, my brother, Bill, and me in our house, without electricity and the wind outside howling incessantly; soon enough, trees came down hard, including one on our roof. Even now, I can hear us all worriedly listening, watching, waiting -- and yes, wondering: What will happen if the hurricane continues?

We could only speculate about what lay ahead -- even as we and our friends in the neighborhood took note, days after the hurricane, of the severe damage to property and to the natural world we had taken for granted. Not least, we asked questions: What causes such hurricanes, and what might be done in the future to safeguard against such an event?

For my father, an engineer and a scientist, there were explanations of cause and effect to consider (and offer us kids). For my mother, steeped in the Bible and in the novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Melville and the stories of Chekhov, there was life's inevitable drama to ponder, the shifts and turns of fate, chance, circumstance.

Thinking about the tsunami, I can hear my parents talking about the hurricane, can remember hearing it come at us suddenly endangered folks, rendered alarmed, afraid and newly vulnerable.

-- Coles is James Agee professor of social ethics at Harvard University and the author of the "Children of Crisis" series.

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'Many countries, many tongues, many altars, drowned'

Richard Rodriguez

During the afternoon, on the day after Christmas, I heard about an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean, and the tsunami.

Is there another day of the year as vulnerable to regret as Dec. 26? The wrapping papers exploded. The wrong toys, wrong motives, wrong sizes, the wrong family.

By early evening, the proportions were apparent -- many countries, many tongues, many altars drowned.

Dan Rather was on vacation. No correspondents combed those wasted beaches.

I warmed the turkey leftovers as I watched the same video, running over and over: The placid beach, the white line on the horizon, the surge of brown water, the camera lens turning inland as the witness ran.

The president was in Crawford, Texas. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was on vacation. Everyone in my building was away.

The garbage man emptied the bins as usual, at dawn on Monday. During the night, the numbers of dead had swelled and rolled and lifted to an unimaginable height.

That second day, the first-person stories gathered. English had to speak for the silent eyes; tourists for the natives. A grip on a child's hand lost; one family's decision to turn left, rather than right.

I could not remember another event so epic, yet so intimate. No reporter to ask, "What do you feel?"

Not until Tuesday would the official world wake from slumber. Diplomats expressed sympathy. Chancelleries announced aid. Reporters were dispatched. Helicopters began delivering water.

The week progressed. The president said. Movie stars promised. Aid professionals knew.

Ex-President Clinton and ex-President Bush were enlisted by the White House to ask Americans to contribute money.

But millions had already sent.

We had heard the stories, seen the homemade videotapes. Strangers who saw death on the day after Christmas had entered our lives, unmediated. We knew exactly what to do.

-- Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

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'The many reduced to one'

Deborah Tannen

Reading about the tsunami victims, I'm drawn to the accounts of European tourists, even though tourists were a small minority of its victims. I have been a tourist at seaside resorts, so I can readily imagine myself in their position. Yet I am ashamed: Why do I focus on those with whom I can identify?

The answer is in the question: I care because I can identify with them. "Caring" means feeling an emotional response when regarding others' experience. Where can these emotions come from, if not from a sense -- even if inaccurate -- of what you would feel in their place? And this raises a second ethical dilemma.

I see a photograph of a mother carrying her dead child, his expressionless face covered with debris -- and I turn away. Her different life circumstances pose no barrier to my identifying with this mother, but I am thinking that the photographer had no right to take this picture, and I have no right to see it. Yet I know that only by depicting individual sufferers can journalists convey the impact of an event -- can they create that sense of identification that is necessary for caring.

We can't comprehend 150,000 deaths because we can't imagine that many people all at once, and if we can't imagine them, we can't care about them. A single story allows us to make the imaginative leap. That's why diseases need a famous sufferer to inspire public demand for funding, as Christopher Reeve did for spinal cord injuries, and historical events need a single iconic victim to convey their magnitude, like Anne Frank for the Holocaust.

It's a paradox: The many reduced to one, the one inspires caring for the many.

But the mother who wailed over her child's corpse did not choose to represent a suffering class, as Reeve did when he talked publicly about his injury or as Otto Frank did when he published his dead daughter's diary. That's why the photograph feels invasive, indecent. So the very thing that makes us care also makes us cringe and turn away -- and the sense of identification that makes us care also draws us to the victims whose experiences are closest to our own.

-- Tannen is a professor at Georgetown University. Her latest book is "I Only Say This Because I Love You."

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'When Nature punishes us'

Carlos Fuentes

Just for once, philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer pleaded, just for once, please try to be Nature. Beautiful, lyrical, fountain of immense pleasure, object of relative gratitude, Nature strikes back, every now and then, telling us: I can also be the source of immense Evil.

But when Nature punishes us, we should try to reflect on all our persistent, man-made tsunamis against Nature and Life. Global warming. The hole in the ozone layer. Acid rain. Desertification. Hunger: 40 million dead each year. Poverty: Almost 2 billion people, one-third of the world, survive on less than a dollar a year. Health: The military expenses of just one day throughout the world would immunize all the children of the Third World and eradicate the worst diseases affecting humankind, according to Nobel laureate Bernard Lown.

We've just arrived in the garden of the universe. "Take care of this garden, it's yours. Stop your children from destroying it" is the admonition that recurs throughout Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano." It's a warning we must remember along with the caustic gratitude that Richard Wagner expressed for Schopenhauer when the philosopher finally gave "voice to the secret conviction that the world is Evil."

It is up to us to make this world better, if not virtuous.

-- Fuentes is the author, most recently, of "Contra Bush."

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'To keep our promises'

Katha Pollitt

Terrible natural disasters happen in every generation, yet each one comes as a surprise, as something we must struggle to assimilate rationally, emotionally, theologically. This is natural, but also strange. What is it about a tsunami that we don't understand? Surely we should not be shocked to learn that the Earth's geology is not fixed for all time.

As a human tragedy -- lives lost, families destroyed, towns swept away -- the tsunami is hard to take in because its scale is so huge, its repercussions so wide, the work of rescue and repair so monumental. It forces us to recognize the precariousness of life, a fact most of us try hard to avoid thinking about.

But it shouldn't raise special questions about the meaning of life or the existence of God. We already knew that people -- children, babies! -- suffer horribly through no fault of their own. We already had trouble squaring arbitrary human suffering with the concept of God as powerful, wise, good, just or concerned with individual humans.

The questions seem more urgent now because the scale of the tragedy means more people are asking them. But they are the same questions raised by a tsunami that sweeps away only one fishing village, only one child playing on the beach.

Maybe the question to ask is not why these things happen -- to my mind a question for geologists and urban planners, not theologians or moralists -- but why it takes destruction on such a scale to make us notice the terrible poverty in which so much of the world lives, and to realize, however briefly, that we can do something about it. Maybe the way we can assimilate the tsunami is through our actions -- to keep our promises of aid to the victims, after the cameras and reporters have moved on.

-- Pollitt is a poet, Nation columnist and author, most recently, of "Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture."

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