Unnatural Disasters 

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The photos are devastating. Day by day, headlines recount the casualties from the Asian tsunami. When I last looked, the number was at 152,000. People from around the globe log onto Web-sites to find ways to aid the victims and contribute to rescue efforts. Nature exacts devastation and human goodwill responds.

Natural disasters do that—bring out the best in people. We respond with horror, then with charity to the havoc a capricious Nature wreaks. We listen to the chilling stories of mothers forced to decide which child to rescue, of vacationers whose families returned without them. Our impulse is to help, to start up a collection, to offer comfort.

I think about this outpouring of goodwill as I read about other tragedies wrought not by Nature, but by man. With all the devastation inevitably visited upon us by natural forces like tsunamis and earthquakes, why do we mortals create so much additional carnage? Why do we develop weapons capable of mass destruction? It didn’t take a tidal wave or earthquake to level Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No. It took two man-made atom bombs to kill 120,000 people instantaneously.

It took only a month for 800,000 Rwandans to be massacred with machetes and hatchets by their own neighbors. We saw no headlines giving updates on body counts. Nor did we see banners posted on Web-sites urging people to help stop the tragedy. Where was the outpouring of grief and aid for this most unnatural of disasters?

The number of Iraqis killed in a war based on falsehoods stands at around 100,000. Where are the photos of Iraqi mothers mourning their children? Where is the outpouring of sympathy for the tens of thousands of innocent civilians who died because we said we were saving them from a mad dictator? Where is the surge of human goodwill to end the horrors of pointless wars?

A recent radio report asked how we can better predict tsunamis to avoid the colossal losses we’ve seen in Asia. After a devastating earthquake in Central America in the 1960s, a newspaper story asked “How can we predict earthquakes?” On the same page was a story about the latest casualties in Vietnam.

The irony is that we can predict wars. We start wars. They lead to the same carnage and devastation that we now mourn in Asia. But nowhere do we see headlines asking, “How can we prevent war?” Preventing war isn’t a priority. After the election, journalists around the world were asked their impressions of U.S. election coverage. Said a French journalist: “All we heard about was war. If it wasn’t the war in Iraq, it was the war in Vietnam. No one talked about peace.”

An NPR story cataloging small and large acts of kindness after the tsunami featured an interview with a woman of modest means who had contributed to relief efforts. When asked if she would also contribute to the relief of the people of Sudan, where a government-sponsored massacre is unfolding, she hesitated. That was different, she said. That involved politics. Because she didn’t know who was right or wrong, she was reluctant to give aid. Did she think the Sudanese were somehow responsible for their own destruction? Again she hesitated. It was too complex, she said. A natural disaster is more clear-cut.

Human loss is a tragedy, regardless of whether a tidal wave, government policy, or other human beings are responsible. Whenever human lives are at stake we—as humane beings—are obliged to intervene.

Mary Dickson is a freelance writer who lives in Salt Lake City.

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