Friday, December 31, 2004

134: Tsunami

Nollaig Shona

For days, even weeks, we had all been complaining about Christmas. Some of our friends had been resigned to it, and others were simply trying to tune out the dogged incessant commercialization that now characterizes the most important feast day of the Christian world. Those with children put up trees, delivered presents, and basked in the joy of their offspring as they tore the wrappings apart ("Oh, be careful", says mother, but the kids never listen).

Christmas always brings to mind memories of my own family. Friends and relatives would be sure to drop by and there was always a good load of booze laid in to take care of them, especially Uncle P who was partial to a drop, and Uncle O who wouldn't say no to another. Their wives, as I remember, drank dry sherry by the gallon. The Christmas Dinner, when it came, would be the best meal of the year with lashings of turkey and ham, mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, stuffing, carrots, peas -- and more where that came from. Then we'd all sit down in front of the telly and doze off, half-drunk and replete, while the ladies did the clearing off and washing up in the kitchen. Round about six (opening time was 5.30 in those days) the gentlemen would rouse themselves and suggest a walk. The walk would take them all of 500 yards to the local pub. Ah well, say what you like, that's the way it was when my Daddy was big and I wasn't.

Here's a letter I got from a pal the other day:

Todays Telegraph had this letter, which just about sums up the day:

Sir - Your correspondent seeks seasonal words. One that may be of interest is the word "sennatuct", as used by my late father. The meaning, he advised me, was "the feeling you get when you have had far too much to eat and a little too much to drink and are sitting in front of an open fire, with the end of your slippers smouldering but not enough energy to move your feet".

Ah, Christmas! Good food and lots of it. Wine, beer, brandy, and whatever you like and lots of that, too. It's the one time of the year when we all think it's OK to get stuffed and drunk and stupid.

Stuffed and stupid, perhaps, but within a few hours, aghast, we were witness to one of the worst natural disasters to hit the planet in the last half-century. The timing couldn't have been more apposite, precise, and frightening.

What are we to think of a God who will allow such things? This was Voltaire's complaint in the aftermath of the disastrous earthquake in Lisbon in 1755. Voltaire was holding the Catholic Church to blame because he disliked the Catholic Church (they disliked him in return) and reasoned that if there had to be a God it would probably be a Catholic God who spoke French, a perfectly reasonable supposition for those times. So why did God allow it? Why did this "merciful" God allow the heavy masonry of the Lisbon churches to fall down and crush the innocent faithful who were praying to Him at the time? Not to mention the people opening their shops and hanging out their washing? God, even if French, was a cold unfeeling bastard.

Our thinking has moved on a bit since then. But not much. Since ancient times there has always been a readiness to see the hand of God involved whenever plagues, famines, or natural disasters overtake ourselves or, better yet, our enemies. The Bible is full of gleeful hand-rubbings over the misfortunes of others, as even the most casual visitor to its pages must reluctantly agree. God is on Our Side. Gott Mit Uns.

What, then, are we to make of the recent disaster in Southeast Asia if these be our terms of reference? God spares no-one: Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Christian, … no-one. Martin Kettle tries to address this problem.

But, of course, these are not our terms of reference at all. We are modern post-Christian, post-religious people. We don't believe in this stuff any more. The churches are empty and we don't care. The Islamic guys are -- what? -- 500 years behind the times. Faith is a joke. It's a ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Right?

What we believe in is Science. Science tells us that what took place was the inevitable physical result of natural forces at work. Two tectonic plates collided (why?) and the level of the ocean waters was displaced upwards. The water at the surface rushed along at a speed of - 500-750 kph - so that the resulting waves hit land masses on both rims of the Indian Ocean -- from Africa to Indonesia -- at mathematically predictable rates. So, who knew this was happening (scientists in Hawaii, for one) and why didn't they post a warning?

Just one of those things. It's over now, Jack, just one of those things. He lit a cigarette and glanced over at me. He smiled and the smile spread into his warm brown eyes. At that moment I wanted to strangle him.

Death and the Raven

Just one of those things

Well, it was certainly not one of those things for the people who were close to the shoreline. So far (Dec 31) 125,000 are believed missing or dead and a further 400,000 are at risk of disease, starvation, or the total collapse of their livelihood (which amounts to the same thing.)

Not to mention the tourists.

What can we say about the tourists? We're really really sorry about you and your families? We're shocked, sympathetic and horrified?

That's the accepted reaction, the official line. The "unofficial" line, the opinions you will hear expressed in pubs and diners and across the breakfast table is that somehow these people "deserved" it -- IT being death. They had no right to escape from the cold and darkness of Europe in winter which most of the hard-pressed families left behind could not even dream about. There is a secret, unexpressed sense of righteous delight that the privileged few, those who could afford to fly away in jet planes to the far ends of the earth for sunlight and lazy living, ended up dead.

Don't tell me it is not there. It's a matter of quiet satisfaction among the thousands of families that "know their place". One gets a whiff of 19th century Biblical sulphur.

Some people (those that wear the cloak of the centuries lightly) will say it was a matter of bad luck and bad timing. I don't believe that. Everything that happens to YOU yourself could be excused for exactly the same reason, including premature death -- not that you'd be around to complain.

In a word, contingency.

This is the actuarial, percentage approach to the mystery of human existence. So many people per 100,000 will develop cancer, so many will be murdered, so many will die from lightning, so many will die from shark attacks (a TV highlight in the summer of 2001 -- along with the missing intern -- when the mass media had no idea what was coming down on September 11).

There is something very comforting about statistics. It seems that the people at risk are always such a small percentage that it couldn't possibly be YOU. The statistics bury your personal vulnerability among the huge number of people to whom these things do NOT happen. So it couldn't possibly happen to you.

But that's what happened to the tourists when the tsunami hit. There's a warm glow involved with survival (no matter how far away from the danger area one might be) but it changes nothing. Even battle survivors are liable to car accidents and the sometimes fatal incidents of daily life. Airplane accidents are few and far between, but so are Lottery winners. In all areas, every year, we have a crop of innocent Lottery losers. Look around you. You can probably name 10-15 people who died before they should have.

I am certainly not indifferent to the fate of the tourists whose casual decision to transport themselves to the far side of the planet resulted, in so many cases, in the loss of children, wives, and husbands. This is a hard thing to bear and the ghosts of what might have been will never be silent for the rest of their lives. Over and above this there are the tens of thousands of local people whose lives have been disrupted by this disaster, in many cases beyond repair.

I see these events, clearly, as a natural tragedy. There will be others.

My purpose in writing this article is very simple, and if there must be a point it is this: death needs no reason. In the midst of life, a life we need to feel is capable of being projected into the future (appointments, schedules, commitments) death is never more than an instant away.

It sits on our shoulders like a patient (invisible) crow. Today is OK. Tomorrow is OK. Then, for no apparent reason, a decision is made and that's it. No explanations, no apologies, no reasons, no appeal. Time is up. The crow flaps his wings and flies away.

That said, donations are still needed. Most of us can afford a few Euro, Dollars or Yen. Many sites on the Internet are accepting donations, including the Irish Red Cross.