When dealing with the autocrats of the Kremlin, President Reagan engaged in a recurring fantasy. What if we, the prime powers in the world, were faced with some exogenous calamity, an extra-terrestrial force that threatened earth’s destruction? Then, couldn’t we pull together? Immerse our differences in a common will to survive? In other words, he saw the immense forces arrayed against one another put to a common use and, calamity avoided, imagined the better world that would surely emerge.
Hollywood has had occasion to pick up the theme; aliens arriving à la War of the Worlds, an errant asteroid that must be diverted or destroyed, variations on the theme of extraneous danger. Which gets us to the tsunami. I would say “tidal wave,” but gosh how that would date us, wouldn’t it? Only in 1930s movies do we hear “tidal wave.” The avant garde TV’ers were swift to adopt that Japanese word, tsunami, or “harbor wave,” and clutch it to their lexicographic bosoms as though they had known its meaning all along. Just as they were pronouncing with certainty the “known” death toll as it mounted by tens of thousands with each passing hour. It will never be known. Partly because it never was known how many lived in the affected area to begin with. Consensus seems to indicate 150,000 dead. But with ten times that number acutely affected.
Was this it? Was this natural catastrophe the overweening event of the late President’s ruminations? Do we see now, the Tamil of Sri Lanka, and the bomb-maker in Bali, what greater enemies we face — the ultimate mortality that dwarfs our petty concerns with one another’s politics, even faiths? Do we find in this epochal event the larger lesson of humanity? As we write the check to UNICEF dare we hope the driver of the bomb-laden car will drive on by next time?
Probably not. The cleavage was maintained early on, not by the needy in the trees, but by the well-fed in the offices. The Americans were stingy, went the complaint. The richest country on earth putting up a pittance, $15 million for starters. The amount of course was swiftly multiplied, a Secretary of State dispatched to the area and a national donations campaign was formed headed by the two most-recent ex-Presidents. There had been a reflex action well before the organized relief campaign got off the ground. Tons of material, from toys to canned food, lie stacked around the United States with no immediate means of getting it to the Indian Ocean. “Money,” say the experienced charity relievers. “Send money and we’ll use it to buy what’s needed and to transport it to where it’s needed.”
There was a sneaking suspicion during World War Two that the tons of aid being sent the Soviet Union was getting re-labeled before it left the receiving port so those capitalists in America wouldn’t get credited by the recipients. But in the tsunami case, who cares? Feed the children, treat the water, relieve the pain. Let the guy in the glass office bitch ’til the cows come home.
So, was this it? No, Mr. President. Afraid not. This attack may be a mere precursor of what lies beyond the ken of us who stay a little while here on a neutral planet. This was big, this tidal wave thing. And terrifying. But selective of a given section of the populace. Not the threatened mutual annihilation that could bind diverse humanity to a common cause. That lesson lies just beyond reach.
Or is it much closer at hand, in the contemplation of one’s own individual mortality?
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