Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Tsunami: My Very Late Responses

The horrible human tragedy that we call the tsunami has been so massive that I have hardly known how to intellectually respond to it. I think by now I can sort of get an idea of what's going on, and these are the things that come to mind:

1) Bill Clinton and Bush I both showed their fundamental ideological commitments when they both said "America is a good, prosperous nation that freely gives of itself to others." While the charitable response is meritorious insofar as it is occuring, to portray the country that hosts the butchers of Grenada, Libya, the Sudan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and so on is scarcely accurate. The US gives an absolutely pitiful amount of its wealth to others, according to an OECD report unveiled fairly recently. Most of our foreign aid, still not very large, goes to Israel and to other client states. Generosity is far from definitional for US foreign policy. More would need to be done - after all, the amount we spend on war is infinitesimal compared to the amount we spend on peace.

2) It is impressive that so many poor individuals contribute so much of their money to relief agencies. The humanitarian response by ordinary people has been relatively impressive, even if it was bundled up with the familiar pieties of how good and nice we are.

3) There is a lively debate over tsunami warning systems among leftists and, to a lesser extent, non-leftist individuals. Some people say that tsunami warning systems need to be installed in affected countries; others say that doing so would be a waste of those countries' limited money. The simple solution would be for the US and European countries, perhaps under the aegis of the UN, to create global or at least substantial regional tsunami warning systems. Doing so would have many benefits: Better records of wave and seismic patterns, the obvious moral impetus of protecting innocent lives (including foreign lives), and so on.

4) There is a background to most of these areas. For one, there were a few people who were able to predict the waves coming, yet due to concerns over scaring tourists and ineffective local response networks, the response was wholly inadequate. Also, in areas like Aceh, Indonesian occupation had wreaked a horrendous toll. In general, the poverty that colonialism and the European legacy writ large has inflicted sure didn't help in combatting the disaster.


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