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From a Distance, Hope Glimmers Like a Mirage Amid the Misery

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page C01

We've entered the moment of insipidity. No matter what may be happening on the other side of the globe, where hundreds of thousands are dead and injured, millions homeless and whole regions in shambles, the narrative arc of the stories Americans expect requires hope. So even before the real actors in this faraway drama have felt the full burden of despair, journalists have moved on to inspiring tales of survival, affirmation that life is returning and that healing proceeds apace.

There's some small evidence of this: a lucky survival story here and there, a few instances of people finding relatives they thought surely were lost. And, of course, it's in the nature of being human to get on with life.

Diane Sawyer, on the ground in Phuket, Thailand, looking on the bright side for ABC's "Good Morning America." (ABC)

So the network superstars have arrived in the stricken areas, as if only by being there can they dig out the essential feel-good stories that allow Americans to reassert faith in a benign God and order and meaningfulness in the world. The print media are there, too, searching for the same scraps of redemption, but without the sentimentalizing touch of the television camera, the tone of familiarity, the relentless, oozing empathy of first-person celebrity journalism.

"If we do story after story that is nothing more than misery, there is a danger of viewers just shutting down because they can't comprehend the enormity of it all," said "NBC Nightly News" producer Steve Capus in yesterday's USA Today.

"There is a heartbreaking side to this story, but there is also a healing and life-affirming side," said "Good Morning America" producer Ben Sherwood in the same article. They get the heartbreak; we get the healing.

Only a churl would deny anyone the consolation of hope, but this frantic drive to find heartwarming alternatives to the death and destruction seems more a symptom of the American psyche than a "fact on the ground" in the tsunami zone. We impose hope because it allows us to contain a horrific story.

Images of destruction inspire an intolerable sense of futility in those far from the catastrophe. The obvious response -- to send aid -- is adequate only to prevent further suffering. About the suffering that has already happened, the losses that can't be undone, we can do nothing. Except watch for a time, until we're numb, or bored, or angry at the repetitive misery -- and then, in the back of the head, cue those violins, the sunset mood, the irrational affirmation that allows us to ring down the curtain.

To ring down the curtain on the story, not on the actual suffering.

Add this to the debate about whether religion is too absent, or too present, in American public life: The stories we tell about disasters such as the Asian tsunami are through and through religious narratives. The basic lines of the hope story are essentially theological -- pain is viewed as a trial, followed by the redemption of hope and healing -- and they break down into a neat, two-act structure. There may not be resurrection, but there are at least tales of miraculous survival.

Disaster also forces the skeptical mind to question God's existence, and yet the media -- supposedly so skeptical -- do a virtuoso dance around the problem of God and His mercy. There are complicated theological ways around this problem, this dilemma of two Gods, one who wields earthquakes and waves like Zeus throwing thunderbolts, the other filled with compassion and alert to the power of prayer. While the media will occasionally raise the issue of doubt -- or how religious leaders deal with doubt -- they revert quickly, effortlessly, to an endorsement of orthodoxy. It is easier to report on people praying (the visuals are better) than it is to write about doubt. And doubt makes people angry. It shakes faith at a time when faith is under stress.

This time we don't have the comfort of evildoers to blame. That the flimsy domiciles and precarious lives of poverty pervasive throughout the disaster zone may exacerbate the suffering is only a partial substitute for a real villain. Mostly, we have death without evil, and without evil, our well-practiced instinct to revenge and anger -- so highly cultivated in this age of terror -- is short-circuited.

So hope becomes a kind of revenge, a revenge we take on the lack of sense in all of this. We fire the big blunderbuss of hope into the darkness of this story, hoping to keep the reality of it at bay. You can feel hope, as the story progresses, becoming tangible, almost three-dimensional. That's hope inside those American helicopters (or rather it's food, which is certainly a start but can sustain only the body). That's hope that Diane Sawyer, so gentle, so inspiring, is finding on the streets of Thailand. Those tourists, sunning themselves once again on the devastated beaches -- what can that folly be, other than hope? When someone is found alive days after a disaster, this is held up immediately as cause for others to maintain hope, as if the exceptional survival of someone else's loved one is a gift "of hope" to everyone else waiting, anxious, for news of their own kin.

And then hope begins to meld, seamlessly, with self-congratulation. "Sometimes even the worst events may bring positive change" is one headline. "Region opens hearts, wallets," reads another, from a small newspaper.

Inspired, perhaps, by the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the German writer Heinrich von Kleist wrote a short story called "The Earthquake in Chile" about two young people, condemned for illicit love, who managed to escape incarceration during the destruction. Before the disaster, they had been execrated by the whole community. But after the tragedy, people change. The young lovers escape the city to an Eden-like place where the wounded are coming together, sharing the pain and the burden, working to nurture new life. It's a moment of delicious, affirming, desperate hope that annihilates the meaninglessness of tragedy.

But Kleist had the sense not to end the story there. Someone recognizes the young lovers. They are set upon by an angry crowd and killed. The community that made a feint in the direction of a new decency reverts to its old prejudices. So much for hope.

Cynicism is as false as hope. It is the other great temptation -- to turn away, indifferent -- and certainly the greater evil. But cynicism and the insipid American narratives of hope share a similar willful deafness to the reality of things. The cynic turns away and says, I won't listen to this because it doesn't concern me. The purveyor of bogus affirmation does what rich, comfortable people have done to poor, miserable ones since time immemorial: He writes them a script, a better script, something with a happy ending, something that lets him sleep a bit more easily when the reality of other people's pain becomes unbearable.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company