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The Tsunami: Sea Change or Back to Business-As-Usual?
by Mina Hamilton
January 10, 2005

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The tsunami catastrophe will be a defining event for the 21st century.

There will be other catastrophes in this century. What will be defining about this one are both the image and the reality of the response. How did the West, particularly the US, respond? Did we quickly tire of the grisly images? Did we go back to business-as-usual? Did we dole out some band-aids and then forget about the suffering?

Or did we jump in for the long haul? Did we help fishermen replace crushed boats? Did we rebuild matchstick houses, cratered roads and collapsed bridges? Did we help create a functioning medical system? Set up trauma counseling? Train teachers? Build schools? Did we funnel aid to the people, instead of a corrupt military?

For days the New York Times and other media focused on the region. The coverage was vivid though it virtually ignored the long, brutal occupation of Aceh by the Indonesian army (see An Interview With Allan Nairn on Aceh, the Tsunamis and Indonesian Military Abuses by Derrick O'Keefe).

The fiery glow of funeral pyres on the Indian coast scorched our eyeballs. Hundreds of bloated bodies littering the beaches of Indonesia twisted our guts. We tried to fathom tens of thousands of children smashed into bits and islands slapped into new shapes.

We learned of the new victims, survivors struggling to stay alive without medicine, water, food or shelter. We read about minor injuries blooming into gross infections that required amputations. We heard that amputations often quickly led to death. Why? Because, outrageously, there was no blood available for transfusions.

We read -- sometimes in unpleasantly self-congratulatory terms -- about $3 billion worth of donations flooding in from private donors and governments.

But something was missing. Where in the US -- except in Indian, Indonesian or Thai communities -- were the candle- lit windows or flower-festooned sidewalks? Where were the spontaneous memorials similar to those that sprang up throughout the US and the world after 9/11? Where were the messages of love scrawled on the asphalt, the hand-written odes to the missing attached to lampposts, fences and subways?

Why was a similar outpouring of grief not happening now in the US? 9/11 was a brutal attack in which three giant buildings collapsed and thousands were burned and crushed to death. Is the Tsunami disaster with its 150,000-plus dead and another 500,000 seriously wounded less deserving of commemoration?

Is it because this destructive agent was a force of nature, instead of Saudi Arabian and Egyptian terrorists? Is it because the victims are predominantly dark-skinned, Hindis, Moslems and other non-Christians? Is it because most of the victims are poor? Or is it just old-fashioned nationalism - we care more about "our own"?

Were the memorials missing because the victims of the tsunami disaster are predominantly faceless, anonymous, unknown?

After the World Trade Center attack the New York Times carried detailed portraits of the victims. For months we saw their photos; we read heart-tugging details about their lives. This woman, after years of trying to become pregnant, was, at last, expecting a baby. That man loved to play with his autistic son. A couple adored scuba diving.

On January 2, 2005 the New York Times ran a composite showing 168 tsunami victims. Their photos had been posted on a church wall in Nagapattinam, an eastern port in India. The figures were tiny and barely discernible. None of the bodies had been identified.

The newspaper did not tell us why the victims hadn't been identified. But we could guess. All of their families and friends had died? The survivors were in refugee camps? Or there wasn't time or money - the bodies had to be cremated as fast as possible? Unlike after 9/11 when scraps of human remains were diligently collected so that DNA testing could identify the unidentifiable, no such expensive scientific infrastructure is available for the tsunami victims.

The tsunami victims are voice-less in death, as they had been in life.

On one level, it's understandable. Reporters on the scene in India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka are doubtless overwhelmed by the magnitude of what they have to cover. Nor is it possible to have portraits of 150,000 people. Besides, unlike families in the US, most of the tsunami survivors don't have the luxury of color xeroxes or snapshots to make more vivid, more "newsworthy" a face, a person, a life.

Still the US media could do better. Yes, there are photos of mothers mourning their lost children but why not detailed portraits of more of the Tsunami victims? Why not a description of how X loved to watch the sunrise and worshipped his 2-year-old? Why not the yearnings of a young man to become a teacher? Why not a 14-year-old's passion for the independence of Aceh? Why not Y's plans to move to Delhi and go to medical school?

The media could help Americans imagine the lives of the people's of these nations and spark an interest in broader social and economic realities like what is Exxon doing in Aceh? Or why are these countries so bitterly poor?

Alas, one can already see the slippage. The photos are sliding off of the newspapers' front pages. CNN will lose interest in US helicopters bringing in supplies. Soon the media will start pulling its reporters back from Southeast Asia. The headlines will switch to Bush's $40 million inauguration and the fight for funding for the Iraq War.

Where will our focus be then? Will we have been changed by this spate of awesome, bone-chilling news? Will we change our priorities?

I hope the tsunami knocked our hearts off their axes. I hope we'll never go back to the way we were.

Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City. She can be reached at

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