NEARLY THREE WEEKS after the deadly quake that killed more than 14,000 people and reduced 30,000 Turkish buildings to rubble, the country's largest newspaper, Hurriyet, is polling its readers with the question, "Do you believe we will be able to draw the necessary lessons from the earthquake?" The answer will have more than journalistic urgency -- and for more than just Turks. As a shell-shocked nation begins to dig out from the worst natural disaster in its modern history, deep weaknesses that were exposed by the disaster could hobble the recovery as well. But some unexpected strengths are on display too, along with the opportunity to break old political deadlocks now that so much of the status quo has been literally swept away.
The weaknesses most visible during the chaos include official disorganization, a near-total lack of disaster planning, corruption in the building trades and the government's traditional tendency to yield to autocratic instinct when faced with criticism. The government shut down one TV station on grounds that it had "hurt public morale" by airing vigorous criticism of bollixed official relief efforts. Just as wrongheadedly, it sought to block some relief efforts by an Islamist party lest the party gain electoral influence.
In fact, Turkey's vibrant free press did it great credit in the emergency, and the quick appearance of help from civic, political and neighborhood groups when the central government was floundering is a sign of an emerging civil society that Turkey desperately needs and should nurture. The shock could also loosen other long-hardened patterns -- defensiveness, deference to the military -- in light of prompt and generous help from countries, such as Greece, previously seen as hostile.
The most important task for now is to put up winter housing quickly for some 600,000 people rendered homeless in a region that gets cold and wet by mid-fall. U.S. aid could do much good here, as could the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (the Turks have asked for debt forgiveness and for the United States to guarantee an earthquake bond issue). The Greek government also could agree to stop blocking $500 million in funds owed Turkey by the European Union from the last customs agreement. A Turkey able to move on from this shock is in everybody's interest.