Sunday 3 April 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

It's an image that still haunts me. The silent, devastatingly advancing waters, obliterating everything on their way. The houses that fall like a deck of cards and are pushed away as if they were toy cars in a giant's box. And then, there's the look on the victims' faces, returning two simple questions to the television cameras: Why? How come?

There are no words with which I can describe my feelings when footage of the recent earthquake in Japan and subsequent tsunami first filtered through. Above all, what really affected me was the silence. It was an eerie scene, to see this solid, black mass of water pressing on, undeterred. And yet hardly a noise came from the television set.

By contrast, the soundtrack to the recent uprising in Libya has been a cacophony of roaring planes, heavy gunfire and Qaddafi's manic voice ranting and raving against the coalition's bombing campaign. Once more civilians find themselves trapped between a dictator's desperate attempts to cling to power and the possibility of getting killed by a foreign allied group's projectiles. As in the natural disaster in Japan, the images streaming through from Benghazi and thereabouts, are daunting.

What unites both humanitarian crises, dreadful as they are, is the public response they've triggered off. It's almost as if we, passive witnesses, are intent on proving wrong the theory that suggests that our reaction to events of this scale depends on the death toll. It is a common belief, and one I would not dare to refute completely, but with which I slightly disagree, that the higher the number of victims, the lesser attention we pay. In my own humble opinion the way we show our sensitivity towards disasters, whether natural or man-made, depends on other factors, too.

The first one is preconceptions, or to put it more bluntly, prejudice and bias. Last summer's floods in Pakistan killed more than 1,500 people and affected approximately fourteen million. An event of this magnitude should have, ideally, spurred the international community into action. However, judging by what I read in newspapers and magazines and what I saw on television, support for the victims was inconsistent and came mainly from Muslim groups both in Pakistan and abroad. At the heart of this lukewarm response was the image of Pakistan as a terrorists' haven, so often portrayed by the media. That leads me to the second factor.

Exposure is fundamental in how we feel about natural disasters. Especially exposure in the media. Japan is a First World country and plenty of Westerners go there to work and live. It's also part of those nations of which we think in benevolent terms, i.e., we don't think about them at all. We're aware of Japan's role in international finance and technology, we're acquainted with its developed economy and we never cease to remark on Japanese tourists and their diminutive cameras, happily snapping away wherever they go. It makes sense, then, that when an earthquake strikes this Asian country, we're united in grief with its people. In the case of Libya, our sympathy is born out of association. One by one the regimes in North Africa have been tumbling down like dominoes. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that we sided with the rebels who rose against Qaddafi straight away. We probably thought it would be a matter of days before the despot went the same way as Mubarak and Ben Ali. But, that's not how it's panned out. The Libyan leader continues to hold to power and as I write this post his forces have regained part of rebel territory, coalition bombing campaign notwithstanding.

The other element as to why sometimes we're more or less capable of empathising with victims of humanitarian crises is context. And numbers don't really come into play. When an earthquake struck the western coast of Haiti in 2010 causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the response from the international community was immediate. Thus, the theory that stipulates that humans have a limit of how much horror they can put up with is flimsy, in my view. Note, please, that I'm not dismissing the argument per se, but rather trying to widen up its scope, making it more flexible and malleable. I believe that there's a threshold in humans when it comes to empathising with victims of catastrophe. For instance, I contributed a small donation to the Haiti relief effort last year by means of an event I attended and which was organised by a friend of mine. Her aim was to raise awareness of the influence of Haitian folklore on Cuban culture, and more specifically, on Afro-Cuban culture. Yet, I have never given money to the dozen or so charities whose leaflets fall out of my weekend's papers and magazines. It's not that I don't think that the African child dying of malnutrition or the Asian baby born with a cleft palate is less deserving than the victims of the Haiti earthquake. It's to do with repetition. The African child's image in The Guardian's Weekend supplement, is the same one that appears in The New Statesman and The Economist. In my case, at least, it's not being unempathic, but being discerning.

Which is why the image of the tidal wave that devastated Japan's north-east coast still haunts me. It's the silence that accompanies the footage, a muteness that could well arrive in the middle of a still night. With fatal consequences.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Road Songs’, to be published on Wednesday 6th April at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Thank you for a very thoughtful and provocative essay.

    I have felt that the Japan earthquake and tsunami has affected me because they are a first world country, and perhaps the most prepared for such a disaster, yet they have been devastated. As for Haiti, was it because it was so close to home? But that is not the case for you in the UK, so that can't necessarily hold. As for Africa, it is sad and shameful that we "care" about the places where we have an "interest" (oil) yet the places where civil war is annihilating people by the hundreds of thousands, we hear little of it except when a celebrity brings our attention there.

    The floods in Pakistan and the relative lukewarm response in the West really does show how vulnerable our minds and hearts are to the various influences of the media.

    I am mindful of these things and want to be cautious about the news, why certain things are covered, and my response to all of it.

    Thanks so much for this.

  2. Dear Cuban,

    I was amazed at that very scene too when the water kept advancing and I could not believe the camera moved away and did not wait to see how far in the water would go.

    In general, none of the disasters affected me but just on the surface, like oh no, I even shed tears when the news reported personal stories, but then right after, I moved on. These reactions did not differ whether it was Japan, Haiti, or Libya.

    But I do pray for the victims and anytime, anybody in person asks for donation of any kind, I would give, little or a lot, I would give. I don't even worry if my money will reach the victims or not.

  3. Thanks for such a powerful post, Cuban. I agree with you that our response depends very much on the context of these human disasters - how much we give, how much we reflect on and to what degree we are affected by these tragedies.

    Empathy relies on some level of identification. Without it we are more likely to view things at distance, as if we cannot recognise the suffering of others. We might even be able to be more responsive to a wounded animal.

    It's inequitable and unfair but it's human. Thanks Cuban for alerting us to these issues.

  4. A very thoughtful post, Cuban, and timely. We tend to be contented with what our media dishes out, not searching for more. We could just as easily spend time in front of the television watching the preparations for the incoming royal wedding than the struggle to survive on a daily basis in Japan after the tsunami and all over the Middle East right now.

    I noticed that if we know someone in the area of a disaster, if we had traveled there, if we have personal memories, we are then more willing to linger and think and contribute even if just in paying attention.

    The tragic part is this lack of response in so many cases that ought to have shook us up to the core.

  5. Many thanks for your thoughtful answers.

    Greetings from London.

  6. I also was shocked and almost disbelieving at the images of water, advancing ever onward. The scale of devastation - and the aftermath - are almost too horrible to contemplate. I give money to organizations like Doctors without Borders and support a Lutheran clinic in Haiti that's been there for 25 years. That way, I know that my money (which I don't have a lot of) is going into the right hands. As for the disasters in the Middle East, I look on them with despair, compassion and a complete lack of ideas on how to cope. The lack of government infrastructure, the religious element, the lethal behavior toward those who wanted to help-- where does that leave much room for effective action? I read so many different sources so I was aware of the scope of the disaster but was also dismayed at the inadequate response.

  7. A very evocative analysis, Cubano. I am still ruminating about the differences in response to these disasters and I believe that you have touched on points that do affect people's reactions. I think the connection and/or proximity is a big factor. I donated to Haitian relief immediately because I have Haitian friends and feel a connection to the culture. I also gave to the Pakistan disaster through Doctors Without Borders. I think that developing countries need and should get aid but I think politics always plays a factor. I was dumbfounded at the Japan disaster and I contemplated how a first world country would receive aid and if it would be the same as with developing countries. I think the swift organization has to do with all the practice from the previous disasters as well as political expectations.

  8. I don't know if it's true that we respond to different countries crises in different ways. I mean, when the tsunami happened off the coast of Indonesia, practicallly everyone in the world was united in support, lending whatever assistance they could to all those countries affected.

    I do agree that the media plays a huge part in how people view certain countries but I don't know if I think it affects something as basic as human empathy. I think most people are decent and will feel for anyone who is suffering.

    I don't know anyone in Japan. I've no connection to that country. But my heart bleeds when thinking of the suffering there right now from the earthquake and tsunami, and what suffering will continue to happen because of the nuclear disaster they're going through.

    I also feel for the people of Libya and the civil war they're going through right now. I don't see this situation ending anytime soon (short of a miracle) and that fills me with dread.


  9. A thought provoking post. I am filled with admiration with the resilience shown by the people of Japan, how they have handled the sorrows. In addition, I immediately think about the killings currently underway in Cote d'Ivoire. The poor response/lack of intervention by African nations and the world. After all, if the price of chocolate goes up, who cares (Ivory Coast accounts for 40% of global cocoa production). But in the case of Libya, everyone cares because of the bottom line - Oil. I think about the ferocity of mother nature. And the wickedness of presidents who want to remain in power for life.

  10. It was horrible to watch and remember the tsunami and the floods in Pakistan. My children’s school is still raising money for Haiti. The Ivory Coast is getting front page treatment in the NYT. With all the upheaval in the Middle East and Africa the world feels at war with itself. I recall Picasso’s Guernica.

    I think the best approach is to give money to organizations like the Red Cross that provides aid without political motivation or judgment.

  11. Dear CIL, you always write with
    a sublime elegance on subjects
    that are for many hard to articulate verbally and in a
    written manner.

    Thank you.

  12. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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