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The Tidal Wave That Touches Our Safe Shore

Asian Disaster Gives Insulated America A Chance to Lend a Helping Hand

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page C01

Sunday afternoon, anyone turning on cable news would have seen two breaking stories: Thousands dead in Asian tsunami, and thousands of Americans delayed at airports. Unspeakable tragedy in Asia, tremendous inconvenience in the United States. Lost children, lost luggage.

Days later, that story from the other side of the world has evolved into something that has vividly placed the concerns of Americans into perspective. There have been other catastrophes around the world in recent years, but this one is of a different order, not just bigger but crueler, a great swallowing of human life, one that devoured children preferentially.

In India, a younge survivor of the tsunami reaches for a share of donated food and clothes. (Arko Datta - Reuters)

This has our full attention. And we may find ourselves wrestling with some difficult questions. What is the right response to the suffering of people far away? What can we do, what should we do, where do we even start?

The immediate response to the crisis has been a surge of charitable giving to international relief organizations. After 9/11, some international relief groups saw a decline in contributions from Americans, but that seems to have changed this week.

"We haven't seen in the last five or 10 years such an outpouring of support," said Dianne Sherman, spokeswoman for the humanitarian organization Save the Children, which since Sunday has received more than $1 million in donations over the Internet. Catholic Relief Services, based in Baltimore, had received $1.1 million in donations as of early yesterday afternoon, most of it through the organization's Web site, spokeswoman Karen Moul said.

The holidays have put people in the mood to give, Sherman said, but that doesn't explain the phenomenal response. Another factor, she said, is that the visual images from Asia have unearthed a painful memory.

"It is a little bit of a flashback from 9/11 when you saw the people walking the streets of New York in a state of trauma, looking for their loved ones."

This may be one of those events that cause a dramatic, if perhaps temporary, shift in our attitude toward the world. The countries along the rim of the Indian Ocean are a mystery to many of us, the geography complex, the national borders hard to follow, the ethnicity and race and religion of the inhabitants difficult to peg from a distance. The names of the places pounded are new to us: Banda Aceh, Meulaboh, the Nicobar Islands, the Andaman Islands, etc.

And now suddenly we meet these people, in photographs and videos, and so many of them are dead -- including children, eyes closed, lying on the ground, who in a kinder world would be merely sleeping.

Stanley Hauerwas, professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, said that although Americans are a charitable people, we are also traditionally isolationist. We don't know much about the rest of the world and have little familiarity with the lives of people in places like Indonesia.

"Americans are a very generous people, both among themselves and for others. But they don't have any idea how to be generous. We're protected from the suffering of other lives," Hauerwas said yesterday.

He cited, by contrast, the charitable behavior of Mennonites: "They don't send money, they go. They help rebuild the barn."

The United States gives billions in foreign aid, but the numbers, by one recent account, add up to only 0.14 percent of the country's gross national product, compared with 0.92 percent given by the most beneficent nation, Norway. And the question of American generosity has created the inevitable political squabble. The Bush administration has appeared somewhat flatfooted in its response to the Asian crisis. The State Department initially announced it would send $15 million in assistance, a number that seemed small for a country in which some individual Wall Street financiers received more than that for their year-end bonuses. By Tuesday morning, the secretary of state was on the defensive, declaring that the United States is not "stingy."

President Bush, meanwhile, continued to vacation, unseen and unheard through Tuesday, and the world may well have wondered what kind of catastrophe would be sufficient to interrupt the president's agenda of clearing brush and riding bikes. Yesterday morning the president finally made a formal statement and wore a suit and tie to connote that he is on the job, if perhaps 72 hours too late.

"We're a very generous, kindhearted nation, and, you know, what you're beginning to see is a typical response from America," Bush said yesterday, highlighting the United States' $2.4 billion "in food, in cash, in humanitarian relief to cover the disasters for last year. . . . That's 40 percent of all the relief aid given in the world last year."

The question is whether the administration can overcome the initial impression abroad that it has more interest in fighting wars than helping disaster victims. Hauerwas said the president's words are a critical component of the American response to the crisis. Money isn't enough.

"He's got to put in words what we should be and do. Because the words are part of the being and the doing," Hauerwas said.

Other countries may also need technology. Americans may want to ponder why a technological civilization, one that has sent probes to distant planets, that can measure the distance to the moon by bouncing lasers off mirrors left by Apollo astronauts, that has equipped almost everyone with a cell phone, hasn't learned how to warn coastal villagers in Sri Lanka that a tsunami may show up in the next couple of hours.

The president endorsed the idea of a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean. This is not a new idea, and it extends beyond the tsunami danger, into other kinds of natural disasters. Brian Tucker, president and founder of GeoHazards International, a California-based nonprofit, said there is a "seismic gap" between rich and poor countries, with the rich nations having the technology to mitigate the risk of damage from earthquakes, and an obligation to do more to share it with poor nations.

And we should do that not just out of humanitarian zeal, he said: "It's in the U.S.'s interest to try to help these countries have stable, thriving, progressing societies and economies."

This may be the start of a longer period of soul-searching by Americans. Our poorest citizens would be considered affluent in much of the world. Our children rarely die at birth. Our drinking water is usually clean, the medicines we need generally available. A tsunami could hit the West Coast or Hawaii but not without first being detected by sensors operated by such agencies as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Our beaches have sirens. Our homes are built to code. We have seawalls. When four hurricanes hit Florida this year we lost a couple dozen people total. Our children are not swept away by the thousands.

It's impossible to mitigate every form of suffering in the world. And some people don't want our help. Possibly the worst-hit area is the Aceh province of Indonesia, a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism where Westerners have hardly been welcome.

But Hauerwas, considered one of the leading Christian ethicists in the United States, said that people of his faith believe that all people, of all religions and nationalities, are their brothers and sisters.

"Matthew 5. Jesus told us we have to love our enemies. It ain't easy! It's not like by loving them they're going to quit being our enemies," he said. "But we have to do it, because Jesus told us to."

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