Close to the end of the world

A year ago, a series of giant waves washed away many coastal communities on the shores of the Indian Ocean. With the speed of a jet plane and the mass of a whole ocean behind them, the waves killed rich and poor, workers and holidaymakers, taking an estimated 300,000 lives. The inconceivable magnitude of nature’s violence and the number of dead immediately created a worldwide feeling that this was one of the catastrophes that will sear itself on the collective unconscious. And for the first time, a disaster of biblical proportions – one that seemed the harbinger of the end of the world – appeared live on television across the world. In the afflicted areas, only the wild animals and a primitive tribe of fishermen on an Indian island sensed the danger and fled to safety on higher ground. For the rest of us on the planet, who have lost our direct contact with nature and thereby with the true sense of danger, it was as if the world had moved beneath our feet – literally and figuratively. Here was an event that nothing could prepare us for, in which man, for all his strutting and pouting, could only hope for a lucky break to survive. Faced by this fear, people did the only thing they could think of: They gave. In huge quantities, the like of which relief efforts had never seen. In every country, it appeared that people wanted to give something to the stricken, as if this would help build a dam against the inconceivable harm. More than 10 billion euros was collected, far more than was needed. But the following year contained a multitude of plagues, as if we all needed reminding of what happens when human beings and their works find themselves in nature’s merciless path. The tsunami hit many parts of the world that we consider to still be «developing.» There was something familiar, albeit on a monstrous scale, regarding suffering in such places. In the West, we take it for granted that organized societies and technology (along with the accountability of government services) deal with natural disasters in such a way that the people are either protected beforehand or are taken care of swiftly afterward if they are in harm’s way. But, at the end of August, Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed New Orleans and much of the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, showed that even the United States was vulnerable to the same problems as the world’s least developed countries. Such was the magnitude of the disaster here that the authorities lost their footing and for several days citizens of the world’s superpower were left to fend for themselves. Neither technology nor money could spare them the woes that humanity faces across the world. And in this disaster, too, the international community and the other citizens of the United States united to offer relief to the suffering. And then, on October 8, came the massive earthquake (7.6 on the Richter scale) which killed more than 80,000 people and left more than 3 million homeless in Pakistan. Today, the survivors are struggling to survive in the subzero temperatures of mountainous Kashmir. The international community – perhaps because of donor fatigue or because the earthquake was a «classical» kind of catastrophe that did not disturb people to the same extent through its novelty – has provided only half of the money needed to aid the victims. But the awe provoked by the quake was such that Pakistan and India eased their differences over Kashmir for a while and Indian troops assisted Pakistani relief efforts – crossing a «line of control» over which the two sides have fought three wars since 1948. This was a more dramatic example of a warming in ties as seen between Ankara and Athens after devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Greece in 1999. It showed, once again, that when human beings come face to face with absolute horror and inconceivable fear, they have no solution other than to stretch a trembling hand out to each other. Conflict, in such circumstances, is a luxury. Over this past year we witnessed death on a massive scale and the full vanity of human pretension. And that gives greater passion to our wishes for a happy new year.