The Padacia
Notes from a pad in Oslo


Harness This Universal Empathy
by Mary Riddell, The Observer

The living are always more shocking than the dead. A seven-year-old Swedish boy tramps the streets of Phuket, searching for his parents and two brothers. A mother from the Andaman Islands weeps as she feeds her baby. The poster children of disaster and the pietas of grief are the images that cling, rather than the bodies washed ashore in a soup of debris.

As the new year begins, the story of the tsunami is being shaped into a simple parable. Nature is vicious and people are kind; 150,000 corpses and £50 million in British donations alone stack up to prove a message that turns global wisdom on its head. In 2004, manmade disaster prised nations and religions apart, as dead children, from Beslan to Baghdad, supplied proof of human viciousness. Then, in a codicil to a year of terror, the planet showed that it could do apocalypse and primal fear better than any mortal agent.

So goodbye cosmic solitude, banished in a tragedy that united rich tourists with the 'sea gypsies' of poor Muslim communities, eking out such a threadbare existence on the shoreline of paradise that the tidal wave bore no economic sting to the countries it devastated. The tsunami's damage to India, for example, is likely to amount to only 0.07 per cent of its gross domestic product.

Anguish is not often universal. Susan Sontag, the American writer who died of leukaemia last week, argued that victims guarded their sorrows jealously. 'It is intolerable to have one's own sufferings twinned with anyone else's,' she wrote. Not any more, as newspaper elegists focus on victims from Surrey to Sumatra and the world huddles round its shared catastrophe.

The vast sums collected reflect, beyond altruism, a hope that the wildness of nature and the folly of men can be bought off in corporate donations and pensioners' heating allowances. Individuals' generosity, though praiseworthy and humbling, suggests something more complicated than kindness.

Hideous and dramatic scenes instil to help, but they also catalyse an adrenaline of mourning. That mood does not necessarily promise a better tomorrow. The solidarity following 9/11 fractured into revenge that ushered in a more perilous world and bystanders inured to the pain of others. In contrast to the audit of tragedy after the tsunami, no government bothered to count the bodies of Iraqi civilians.

Collective emotion is always fickle and sometimes tainted. In one of the last great outbreaks of group grieving, cellophane-wrapped bouquets piled up for Princess Diana, and the media clamoured for leadership. Just as the Queen was bidden back from Balmoral, so Tony Blair was urged to get off his Egyptian deckchair and fly home. The mawkish wake for Diana is not to be compared with the heartfelt response of people who could understand, in the tsunami victims' agony, how it must feel to watch a partner drown, to cry in vain for a lost child or to lament the disappeared.

But both real and synthetic grief slide easily into blame. Scapegoats of the tsunami range from organised religion to shambolic aid providers to moneyed Westerners with an unhealthy yen for beachside primitivism. For blamers and the givers to draw what sense and solace they can from horror is not a disreputable response.

It is not an endorsement of William Hazlitt's view that love of cruelty is as natural as sympathy to human beings, let alone of Edmund Burke's belief that we have 'a degree of delight' in the pain of strangers. Modern citizens, sated by images of death, do not need a tsunami to teach them how randomly the bell tolls.

But disaster also offers a strange comfort. The solidarity of giving assuages the guilt and fractiousness of societies normally force-fed on fear and mistrust. It also lulls people into using the unthinkable as an affirmation of their own worldviews, rather than the challenge it should be.

Secularists deride the platitudes of churchmen and ask how the religious can believe in a god who sanctions such atrocities. The devout criticise the nihilism of rationalists and describe their own faith as a candle in the darkness. Creationists, who still think that 'the fountains of the great deep' in Genesis 7.11 signified the tsunami that launched Noah and his floating zoo, presumably consider the latest earthquake another instalment in the Almighty's great partwork.

Those who consider global warming an overrated fuss see the earthquake as proof that outlawing aerosols and recycling the new year champagne bottles are pointless gestures. More plausibly, people who warn that the world is on a reckless path to self-destruction decipher in the earthquake an urgent warning of what is happening to a planet cursed by hurricanes, typhoons and rising seas.

The tsunami has confirmed, and never confounded, the views of its spectators. An earthquake may tilt the world on its axis, but it cannot shake the human mind. President Bush, whose initial pledge of $15m was half the cost of his inauguration, will still not sign up to Kyoto. Mr Blair writes boldly in the Economist of 'aiming high' on climate change during the presidency of the G8, but many worry that his market-based approach to climate change and lack of curbs on lavish energy consumers smack of pitching his efforts far too low.

Ordinary citizens, even the most generous, need to notice the 30,000 children under five who die each day, irrespective of whether their corpses lie alongside those of Western babies. The godless, like me, should never presume to see catastrophe as a snub to people of faith, just as all believers should acknowledge that their god is supremely short of answers when worlds cave in and children rot to death in hospital corridors.

The donations will be counted, the aid will kick in and the monolith of the UN will creak into action, for a time. New earthquake monitors will ensure that no crab can scuttle across the floor of the Indian Ocean without activating a sensor in Jakarta or Bangkok.

But nothing will really change unless the spirit of global co-operation is real. That means confronting the overlapping problems of climate change, humanitarian crises and war. It means never again embarking so recklessly on the sort of manufactured catastrophe still unrolling in Iraq. It means realising that a volatile planet and uniquely powerful warmongers form a mix no species can reliably withstand.

The tsunami offers many lessons, but one is the selectivity of pity. A Swedish boy searches for his parents. A mother from a vanishing tribe gazes across her infant's body through a wall of tears, and the world responds to both. But the test of compassion is what happens next to millions of people made hungry and poor by acts of nature and global policy alike.

In the optimistic view, people have signalled a universal empathy not just with last week's survivors but with the legions of shadowy victims marginalised, demonised or massacred at the whim of the mighty. Citizens have distilled the essence of reform. It is up to politicians to bottle and sell it.

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