An Inexplicable Disaster Unfolds in the Living Room

If my last venture in charity had been the Oil for Food program, which fleeced the starving in order to enrich Saddam Hussein, I would not have criticized America’s first response to the tsunami. But now that the choppers and the money (public and private) are flowing, even the United Nations must be satisfied.

That issue, however, is a petty distraction from the vast issue, the unfaceable issue: Why do we live this way? Why do we die this way?

The death toll from the tsunami has passed 50 World Trade Centers. But what does that mean to the survivors? If everyone you know has been killed, what do a few zeroes add? Once the world of an Indonesian or a Sri Lankan has been destroyed, what does he have to spare for all the other ruined worlds around the Indian Ocean? What difference, meanwhile, does it make to us, dry in New York?

Yet the world does impinge on us. Hardly any place is without some radio or television, even if it sits in the district commissioner’s house. Before the era of instantaneous communication, societies had myths that warned them of the end of things; every drought or epidemic could seem like the last cataclysm. So men’s minds have always been connected to everything-which adds to their miseries.

Even we, the remote unaffected, feel some real link. Part of our interest in disaster is always unworthy-gawking, or telling ourselves that we are still alive. But the shaky tourist videos, the photos of makeshift morgues or the interviews of good reporters do bind us to people we have never met, and places we will never go.

What, then, can we do about it? One thing not to do is to try to explain it. In 1757, Samuel Johnson encountered, as a book reviewer for a London magazine, an ambitious tract, A Free Enquiry Into the Nature and Origin of Evil, by Soame Jenyns. Jenyns’ goal was nothing less than to justify the universe’s ways to man, and he had, Johnson reported, “thought on a way by which human sufferings may produce good effects.” Jenyns assumed that humanity is surrounded by an invisible race of higher beings who benefit from its distress and death, just as humanity makes use of the lower animals for food or sport.

Johnson took up the idea like a jewel, turning it to display all its facets. “As we drown whelps and kittens,” he wrote, surely the higher beings “amuse themselves, now and then, with sinking a ship …. As we shoot a bird flying, they take a man in the middle of his business or pleasure, and knock him down with an apoplexy. Some of them, perhaps, are virtuosi, and delight in the operations of an asthma, as a human philosopher in the effects of the air-pump. To swell a man with a tympany is as good sport as to blow a frog. Many a merry bout have these frolick beings at the vicissitudes of an ague, and good sport it is to see a man tumble with an epilepsy, and revive and tumble again, and all this he knows not why …. [T]he paroxysms of the gout and stone … must make high mirth, especially if the play be a little diversified with the blunders and puzzles of the blind and deaf.” Mr. Jenyns’ answer did not give satisfaction.

Are God’s explanations any better? His answer to our pain, via the Book of Job, is: I made whales. His answer via Mel Gibson is: I was scourged really, really a lot. The first answer asserts that creation is better than destruction; something is more than nothing. The second answer assures us: Whenever you suffer, I am there. What more can Deity do? He could make a world without tsunamis, cancer or death. But that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

In the near term, we are left to our own devices, which means that the squabble over relief has some point after all. The impotent of the world-which includes the U.N.-see AmeriKKKa as some malign parent, showering rewards on the unworthy (Donald Trump, say, or Israel) while cold-shouldering the innocent. One problem with that demonology is that it ignores the multiplicity of Americas. In the context of foreign affairs, America usually means the government-Uncle Sam. But in the context of international relief, America is also Americans: the millions who give, impulsively or regularly, to an array of charities.

That giving is generated by a surplus, and by an attitude. The surplus is the wealth spun by the American economy; the attitude is the mind-set of free men and women, habituated to following their own concerns. The same forces also uphold the government, for its revenues are produced by the economy, and its ability to spend them is legitimated by the people’s sense that they have played some role in picking their governors. Despots take whatever they can, but there is always less to take from unfree economies, and the people surrender it with ill grace unless they believe the despot rules in the name of God or tradition-and where in the world, outside the jihad, do those forces operate politically these days?

One of the silver linings of this awful Christmas was the response of the Indian middle class to the catastrophe. India has, at length, united democracy with economic freedom. The combination gives ordinary Indians something to spend, and the sense that their efforts count for something. One wonders what would happen if a tsunami hit China. Poor people fleeing the scene; the army stopping them, even as it fed them; millionaires locking their compounds.

The world needs other things, like tsunami-warning systems. But they will never be perfect; disaster will always dog us. We can only hope that the little accumulation of improvements will create older, healthier and more prosperous people to kill. After the Lisbon earthquake, Voltaire wrote Candide and advised men to cultivate their gardens. That was a half-answer. When everyone cultivates his garden, there is more in the granaries. An Inexplicable Disaster Unfolds in the Living Room