150,000 and one

In the torrent of photographs that followed the tsunami, among those able to symbolize the sudden, violent death of 150,000 or more people are two that appeared in the days immediately after the disaster. The first depicts a small harbor in Sumatra. At first glance, the water appears to be filled with rubbish. But a closer look shows that the flotsam contains countless human bodies in a dense mosaic of death. Bloated and twisted in every angle of agony, the dead recreate the hell painted by the medieval Flemish master Hieronymus Bosch. In the second photograph, a mother and father writhe in anguish over the damp body of their 8-year-old son, in the Indian province of Tamil Nadu. The mother touches her forehead to the boy’s face, her eyes shut tight, her mouth wide open in a heart-rending wail. The father holds the boy’s hand to his own brow, his face twisted in pain. Behind them, the Indian Ocean lies tranquil, like a monster sleeping off an endless feast of souls. Usually, the death of many does not affect us to the extent that one death does. For those not directly involved, there is something both comforting and alien in collective death. Because each cares about his or her own, unique death, something that looks different seems far away. But this time, the catastrophe was so great as to affect the whole planet. The earth itself was shaken by the quake, tourists from many distant countries were among the dead and missing, the images of the catastrophe traveled across the world within hours. But beyond that, the dead were so many that their fate touched everyone. This caused an unprecedented outpouring of charity across the globe. We cannot avoid death, but we have some say as to how we live. Each death creates a sense of solidarity among the living. And when we see the black wall suddenly rising before us, all we have is each other.