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In Haiti quake, a tragedy that defies logic

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By David Ignatius
Thursday, January 21, 2010

When an overwhelming natural disaster such as the Haiti earthquake kills many thousands of people, there is a natural human tendency to look for causes and assign blame. We want to understand why the terrible event occurred, beyond the freakish geological lottery of moving plates and structural faults.

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An extreme example of this desire to "explain" tragedy was the Rev. Pat Robertson's statement a day after the quake. He said that Haiti had been "cursed" by God because its people "swore a pact to the devil" two centuries ago through voodoo rites.

There are secular versions of this same desire to interpret horrifying events. Looking at the devastation, some observers have seen the effects of Haiti's class system, with poor people suffering disproportionately, as reported by The Post's William Booth ["Haiti's elite spared from much of the devastation," news story, Jan. 18]. Richard Kim blamed harsh international loan policies for Haiti's chronic poverty in a Jan. 15 post on the Nation's Web site.

Other commentators have drawn different lessons. David Brooks faults Haitian culture. "Some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them," he wrote in the New York Times. Anne Applebaum argued in The Post that this was "a man-made disaster" and that the earthquake's impact "was multiplied many, many times by the weakness of civil society and the absence of the rule of law."

There's some truth in all of the secular explanations. But they leave out the most painful and perplexing factor we encounter whenever terrible things happen: bad luck. The same problem arises when catastrophic events befall people we love -- a life-threatening disease, say. We look for a rational explanation of why this person got cancer, but his neighbor, who has all the same risk factors, didn't. Often, the most honest answer is: It just happened.

Talking about the Haitian earthquake, my friend Garrett Epps, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Baltimore, recommended a book called "Evil in Modern Thought," by the philosopher Susan Neiman. Her starting point in discussing how people respond to evil events was the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, and killed at least 15,000 people.

The Lisbon earthquake was so catastrophic that it traumatized all of Europe. The quake itself lasted 10 minutes and buried thousands in the rubble. It was followed by fires that raged across the city and then by a series of tidal waves that ravaged the port and drowned hundreds who had taken refuge on the coast. It seemed obvious to most people, in that religious time, that this devastation of a magnificent city was an act of God -- a terrible punishment for human transgressions. But why Lisbon?

"Orthodox theologians welcomed the earthquake in terms they barely troubled to disguise," writes Neiman. "For years they had battled Deism, natural religion, and anything else that tried to explain the world in natural terms alone." The theologians debated what sins might have brought down so much divine wrath. A few argued that the quake was punishment for Portuguese plunder in the New World and "the millions of poor Indians your forefathers butchered for the sake of gold."

Philosophers, too, struggled to comprehend the meaning of this disaster. Immanuel Kant wrote three essays about earthquakes for a weekly paper in Konigsberg; his main point was that earthquakes didn't happen in Prussia and thus could be explained without divine involvement. Rousseau and Voltaire argued over whether such evil events could be understood at all, says Neiman.

The hero of the Lisbon tale was the man who led the relief efforts, the marquis of Pombal, who served as prime minister under King Joseph I of Portugal. Pombal had no use for the anguishing debate. He famously said: "What now? We bury the dead and feed the living." And he did just that, rapidly disposing of the corpses, seizing stocks of grain to feed the hungry and ordering the militia to halt looting and piracy. Within a year, the city was being restored.

I will think of Pombal as I watch the reconstruction of Haiti. His response to imponderable devastation was to rebuild, boldly and confidently, making sure the new buildings could withstand a future quake.

"Nature has no meaning; its events are not signs," concludes Neiman. Earthquakes are not evil; evil requires intent; it is what human beings do. The response to inexplicable events is not debate but action.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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