As the death toll continues to rise, being given now variously as more than 23,000, approaching 40,000, and exceeding 40,000, a number of different kinds of question are beginning to be raised in the press.
Predictably perhaps, one of these is the theological question. Martin Kettle writes:
From at least the time of Aristotle, intelligent people have struggled to make some sense of earthquakes. Earthquakes do not merely kill and destroy. They challenge human beings to explain the world order in which such apparently indiscriminate acts can occur. Europe in the 18th century had the intellectual curiosity and independence to ask and answer such questions. But can we say the same of 21st-century Europe? Or are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?A letter (from John Rudkin) in the Telegraph puts it more sharply:
On the abundant available evidence does it not seem that, if there is or was a God, it is now malevolent, mad or dead?Others have set out the science of what happened: of how gigantic quakes occur. They do this partly with a view to preventing future calamities. Some have apparently been expressing scepticism about the usefulness of an early warning system for the Indian Ocean:
The scale of the devastation provoked questions about the absence in the Indian Ocean of the kind of early warning system for tsunamis that is available in the Pacific.This last view is argued here by Simon Day, of the University of California, who also touches on attitudes of theological resignation:
Some experts said the relatively small size of the Indian Ocean and the great speed at which tsunamis travel would make such a system almost superfluous.
However, officials in all the main countries affected have conceded that even a few minutes' warning would have saved many lives, possibly thousands, as it would have given people some time to scramble to higher ground.
As a scientist working on the causes and effects of tsunamis, I find editorialising along the lines of "a readiness to accept the hardness of our condition is the only proper attitude" quite excruciating. For me, the deepest horror of the event lies in the one to three hours between the recording of the earthquake on the worldwide seismic network and the arrival of the tsunami waves on distant coasts, while their victims lived out the last hours of their lives all unawares.(A piece by Roger Highfield ends by generalizing on the prevention issue to other major possible hazards.)
With less than an hour of warning and a simple lesson in advance on what to do, most would have been able to simply walk a mile inland to safety and the death toll would have been counted in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands. Providing these things is not advanced science.
There is a strange leader in today's Daily Telegraph which purports to explain why it is morally appropriate, within the greater tragedy, to be specially concerned about British lives lost. As the leader-writer puts the point:
To focus on a handful of British holidaymakers when thousands of people have been swept away may seem unbalanced, indecent even.The rest of the editorial goes on to elaborate this argument. However, what you will see is that it makes an unacknowledged - possibly unnoticed - substitution: it shifts from talking about closeness and distance as factors of sympathetic identification to talking about smallness and largeness of scale. 'We can empathise with a single orphaned child', the editorial says, but not with tens of thousands of people. The conclusion is:
Yet genuine compassion demands a degree of affinity. We sympathise with people, as the etymology implies, because we can identify with them. The further removed they are from us, the harder this is.
To grieve for the loss of a single person, and sincerely to mean it, is the true test of decency. For the thousands of whom we know nothing, we can only remark, with Othello, "Oh, the pity of it."The shift is of some importance. There may well be a problem for any normal human individual in having a heart, an emotional capacity, large enough to take in more than a certain number of people at any given moment. But this says nothing whatsoever about which particular people, or what sorts of people, anyone can be concerned about. You might feel for someone else, or feel especially for them, because they are of your own national community, giving you that particularist tie of identification with them. But so may you feel for another simply because she is a mother who has lost her child, or a child his parents, or a family their home and possessions - or just because this is a human being in dire trouble. There may be limitations on the potential scope of human sympathy, but it is nowhere written that these have to map on to geographical proximity and distance.
Beyond both theology and the science of earthquakes or of early warning systems, there is something enduring here about the human condition in the face of calamity:
"My house collapsed and I had my daughter's hand in mine as we ran back from the water... But the wave took her from my hands."Everyone understands the meaning of these terrible stories. Theology and philosophy and science have their place, and so does ordinary human experience.
"He was sitting by the street and suddenly the water came... I looked back and he was gone."
"I don't have a sari to change into. I have nothing to eat... We lost everything..."