- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Last week’s devastation and suffering in South Asia, with a loss of life that could extend well into the hundreds of thousands, should give us pause to think about disasters of all kinds, both natural and manmade and what we should be doing about them that we are not.

First, an obvious point: No matter how far technology and science progress, like King Canute trying to stop the tides, humankind’s ability to prevent natural disasters is limited at best. Early warning of tsunamis and other quickly developing storms can be improved. However, as the first President Bush learned following a sluggish government response to Hurricane Hugo, the international community must have better structures and procedures in place to generate more immediate action to catastrophic disasters — even at holiday time and no matter how infrequently they occur.

As happened after Hurricane Hugo, the apparent failure to have timely responses in place this time around is inexcusable. This is one area where even the nearly 200 members of the United Nations should agree unanimously and take effective remedial action.

Second, while most natural and man-made disasters in which many innocent human beings perish too often receive Admiral Lord Nelson’s “blind eye” treatment, only disasters and direct threats to sovereignty or nationhood freely open national treasuries irrespective of the level of carnage or destruction. Nations will always maintain the right to defend themselves regardless of the size of loss. At Pearl Harbor less than 2,000 Americans died in the attack that stunned a passive nation into sparing resources to win a world war. In 1982, Britain sent its forces 10,000 miles to retake the tiny and strategically irrelevant Falkland Islands after Argentina’s surprise invasion at huge relative cost (although in fairness, that demonstration convinced the Soviet leadership to take Britain’s modest nuclear deterrent more seriously). And current American military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to show this inversion between actual loss and magnitude of response.

By further comparison, somewhere between 50 and a 100 times more people will perish in the tsunami’s wake than the 3,000 who were killed in the disaster of September 11. Yet, as an extension of the importance of national security, it will come as no surprise that the United States will spend possibly 100 times more money on the global war on terror than will go to coping with the carnage in South Asia. Human suffering, however severe, lacks a political constituency, another harsh fact of life.

Third, beyond the fury of nature there are man-made disasters. Consider genocide. Hitler’s extermination of millions of Jews and East Europeans was no secret. The allies could have taken some form of action to save lives. They did not. In the 1970s, the international community stood idly by while the Khmer Rouge slaughtered a million or so Cambodians in the infamous “killing fields.” Rwanda in the 1990s and Sudan today are grim evidence of human cruelty and the reluctance and inability of either the global community or individual nations to take decisive action to prevent mass murder.

Last, it is easy to argue that comparisons between different categories of disasters and levels of response are simplistic. Sending half a million Americans or other troops to Africa to prevent genocide is not going to happen. But more than half a million Americans were stationed around the world during much of the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union. Virtually no one died in combat against the Russians and a similar number did fight in Vietnam and served in the first Gulf War to liberate Kuwait in 1991.

So what does this mean? The tsunami should be a further warning to look more seriously at other possible natural calamities about which greater or more immediate attention is needed now. Dramatic climate change popularly expressed in the debate over global warming and HIV/AIDS and other diseases are among the likely candidates for consideration. However, once the water and television crews recede and the dead are buried, almost certainly the urgency of thinking about disasters will dissipate until the next one strikes.

There is, however, one form of disaster where we can and should act preemptively. That pertains to genocide. It is about time to take seriously the laws and declarations made to oppose mass murder. Conventions will not prevent future tsunamis and hurricanes from wreaking great damage as coastal residents understand. When it comes to humans killing other humans in significant numbers, blind eyes are no longer conscionable. We can only grieve and offer aid and succor to the victims of this latest disaster. We can, however, do something about Sudan and other places where death and violence are preventable.

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