When Disaster Strikes

I find it interesting how we as a nation decide where and/or when to direct our sympathy when natural disasters occur. Late last year, in this blog I pondered about why I didn’t feel as compelled to donate money to flood victims in Pakistan, when I didn’t even think twice about sending money to Haiti.

I think that in the case of those two disasters, it really had more to do with sympathy: at least in the narrative that we as Americans have constructed (and much of it isn’t untrue), Haiti’s devastation was in large part due to poverty that we, and much of the Western nations, should feel at least somewhat responsible for. After colonization (which we all know can get ugly) we chose to ignore dictatorships that arose in the region, and then didn’t do as much as we could and should have to help stabilize Haiti after the dictatorship was over thrown. When we saw buildings crumble, it obviously had to do with the weak infrastructure, the abject poverty of the nation was made obvious to us, and the people of Haiti were helpless victims that we had to help.

On the other hand, the floods in Pakistan didn’t draw that much sympathy from Americans. I think that in part because by then we were feeling donation fatigue by then, but I think that it was also more difficult for Americans to see the Pakistanis as victims. I think this has mostly to do with politics and religion; that region is so largely involved in what is happening in the war in Afghanistan, many of the most high profile Al Qaeda operatives are there or from there, and we often hear reports about the anti-American rhetoric coming from the region. Because of this, we tend to think of the poverty in Pakistan as self-induced; their own fault for not wanting to modernize, so to speak.

So while civilians, women and children were largely affected, we didn’t feel as much sympathy as we did for Haitians, who were more obvious victims to the American imagination.

But now that this earthquake and tsunami have hit Japan, I think that we are not only feeling sympathy, but absolute horror. I know I am, at least.

Not only is it unbelievably frightening to even imagine being in an earthquake of that magnitude, or watching entire villages be swept away by the ocean, but the Japanese were prepared for this. More prepared for natural disasters than we are here in California. Their infrastructure is some of the most sophisticated in the world, they have the strictest of building codes, preparedness kits are a way of life, and the culture in general values remaining calm during emergencies.

So watching this footage of all of this destruction reminds us that there is nothing that the people could have done to prevent damage. It reminds us that it is not just the people in the world living in poverty that are most likely to see their houses crumble or wash away, and we feel sorry for them because they are poor and couldn’t do anything to help themselves. I feel like I am stating the obvious when I say that this reminds us that no one in the world is immune to nature’s fury. But these past few days have not only made my heart ache for the people of Japan, they’ve reminded me that by living with so much privilege, we’re perhaps developed this false sense of security.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not the paranoid type that sees this as the beginning of the end of the world. It’s just that this week has reminded me to know that in just an instant, everything can be taken away so easily, and to count my blessings every day.

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