The devastation in South Asia defies description, but it cannot lead us to the fatal lethargy of despair. The scope of the loss may be incomprehensible, but surely we understand the essential facts: Many tens of thousands are dead; millions are suffering and at risk of disease and starvation. That knowledge must inspire not morose reflection, but immediate action. Countless lives depend on us to do our share, and more, for the millions who grieve and suffer.
New Yorkers have a special obligation to the tsunami’s victims.
Just over three years ago, the world rallied around us when we were subjected to an unprecedented terrorist attack by the enemies of civilization. People from all over the globe put aside their differences and disagreements to come to our assistance. In our darkest hour, we welcomed the light of humanity’s embrace.
Nothing any of us can do will ease the burden of grief in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and the other devastated countries. Homes can be replaced with our financial help. Injuries can be healed with our expertise. But sorrow is beyond our power. We realized that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, as we mourned 3,000 of our relatives, friends and neighbors.
Still, there is much we can do and ought to do. Dozens of agencies have made it easy to donate money. And as citizens of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, and as residents of that nation’s wealthiest and most powerful city, we have a special obligation to make sure that Washington lives up to its pledge of massive assistance. While the Bush administration was slow to recognize the magnitude of the horror, its promise of $350 million in aid and its deployment of soldiers and sailors to the relief effort is admirable. But it is up to us to make sure that the White House lives up to its promise and to demand more if more is required.
The United States in general, and the Bush administration in particular, have not made many friends abroad in recent years, particularly in the Muslim world. Now, however, the nation and the administration have an opportunity to show the world, including those who despise us, that we hear the cries of the suffering. Perhaps it will be noted that the United States is rushing to the assistance of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where the death toll approaches 100,000. Perhaps those in the Islamic world who believe we wish to crush them will note that U.S. helicopters are delivering food and
Will a generous, indeed heroic, American response to this apocalyptic devastation win us friends where now we have only enemies? Will it be harder now for Osama bin Laden and his ilk to insist that America and the West bring only bloodshed and pillage to the Muslim world?
Let us hope so. But we cannot make these kinds of arguments, because we act not out of self-interest but selflessness, not with an eye on geopolitics or public relations, but with hearts filled with grief and compassion. As we continue to reach out to parents who have lost their children, to children who have lost their parents, to poor people who have lost what little they had, we should remember the words of John F. Kennedy, spoken on a cold Inauguration Day in 1961.
“To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required-not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right,” Kennedy said. “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
Because it is right. That is why our C-130 cargo planes are bringing food and other emergency aid, and why a U.S. aircraft-carrier battle group steamed from Hong Kong to the Indian Ocean. They have been deployed not for the sake of conquest, but in the cause of humanity. Not because we wish to be seen handing out food, not because the Saudis won’t do it, not because we want to win chits, but because it is right.
It is right because we see in the faces of survivors a terror and need that speak to us as human beings. It doesn’t matter that the victims are half a world away, that they call God by a different name, that they may never know, really, who helped them and who did not. What matters is that they are fed and clothed and housed as quickly as possible, and that they take some comfort in knowing that they do not mourn alone.