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