The swaths of South East Asia worst hit by the tsunami on December 26 and subsequent days have long been analogous with everything cheap: cheap laborers, cheap raw materials, cheap tourist destinations, and yes, much cheaper life.
The whole episode was utterly horrific. But what was it exactly that most of us found so horrifying as we watched people being swept away by the murky waters? Was it the lost lives that were washed away in a flash? Was it the innate fear that often accompanies natural disasters wherever they strike? Or was it the unstated guilt that our privilege necessitated their servitude and misery in this life?
What I found inexcusable however, was much of the media’s narrative – our visionaries, commentators and thought-provokers – in response to the unprecedented tragedy in Asia. In Western media, priorities were stacked based on the value of racial importance. Thus, the obvious concern was over the safety of the European, Australian and North American tourists. Once that was settled and everyone was accounted for, the Asian multitudes, 165,000 of which have been confirmed dead since the drafting of these words, turns into a statistical issue, with futile and untimely philosophical questions being raised, and affording politicians an opportunity to show off their kinder, gentler side. Hogwash.
Martin Kettle of the British Guardian found it most suitable to ask “Are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?” while striking a comparison between the courage of 18th century intellectuals Voltaire, Kant and the like and today’s obviously spineless logicians. While many writers around the world had no suggestion on how to help the estimated five million people roaming the havoc-struck towns of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Maldives, and others, seeking food and shelter, they had plenty of blame to pin on God, demanding answers for nature’s catastrophes.
Every number associated with the earthquake and Tsunami and their aftermath was distressingly high. The wounded have been estimated to be at least four times as many as the dead. World Health Organization Director Lee Jong Wook spoke of hundreds of thousands of people sustaining serious injuries. Health officials warned of numerous diseases caused by exposed and floating bodies and contaminated water; dysentery, cholera, typhoid, malaria, and dengue fever are only a few.
But the most disturbing figures by far were the dismal pledges of aid to the inhabitants of the disaster areas. Finally emerging from his Texas vacation after days of silence, President Bush promised a paltry aid package of $15 million, which was later upgraded to $35 million, and then to “10 fold as much as the earlier aid contribution,” an astounding $350 million.
Regardless of whether the aid reaches the most deserving or not, or whether there is a political price tag to pay, I think it’s rather interesting to indulge in a few more statistics.
According to the US-based National Priority Project and based on official estimates, the US government’s war in Iraq has thus far cost a whopping $147,611,513,432. That’s nearly $148 billion. The war was unnecessary by all accounts, save those of President Bush and his henchmen-intellectuals. According to NPP, the cost of the war could have housed 1,329,102 families in the United States alone, or could have fully funded worldwide AIDS programs for 14 years. Instead, the money was funneled into the war machine, the Pentagon, defense institutions, and various companies and contractors, to subsidize a catastrophic war, which has claimed the lives of over 100,000 Iraqis, and well over 1,000 American soldiers.
The United State’s final aid contribution to the tsunami victims would hardly sustain the Iraq war for more than 36 hours, with daily spending estimated at $270 million. In fact, the cost of one F-22 Raptor fighter jet is around $225 million, well over half of the aid offered to the millions of victims of the disaster in Asia.
For many, pinning the blame on God is the best possible scenario, for it absolves us of what should’ve been an obligation toward fellow humans. It’s rather a charity, a donation, and a matter of choice. But how much of a choice do we have when our tax money is used to finance the dropping of napalm on sleeping families in Basra, or to “aid” Israel’s most ingenious endeavor to fence off Palestinians in an open-air prison in the West Bank? Wouldn’t most Americans rather contribute a meager half million dollars from the Pentagon’s $1.5 billion-a-day budget to purchase two early warning systems tsunami meters to be placed in the Indian Ocean, which could’ve possibly saved thousands of lives? According to the US-based International Action Center’s estimates, “for what the US is spending for less than one second of bombing and destruction, it could construct a system that could have prevented thousands of needless deaths.”
And because it’s God’s fault anyway, then no need to alter war plans for the sake of miserable Asians. According to the New York Times’ Jane Perlez, three Navy vessels carrying more than 2,000 additional marines being shipped to Iraq from San Diego to sustain the US war could be diverted to help in the aid efforts. Yet the decision was “yet to be made,” since it’s a “political” decision after all. While the diversion of the vessels could indeed save many lives, the compelling need to blow up more Iraqis makes the decision all the more difficult.
It’s interesting, albeit disheartening, to observe the world’s relative level of preparedness for war versus for aid efforts. For example, during the US-British war on Iraq, B-52 bombers made daily flights from their bases in Western Europe, bombarded military and civilian installations in northern Iraq, and arrived safely back to their bases the same night. Yet, journalists managed to make it to the worst hit areas in Aceh, Indonesia, and reported from there for days before aid even began arriving, and when it did, it was hardly comparable to the cost of the bombs that annihilated entire Afghani and Iraqi towns and villages.
The death toll in Asia is expected to grow; faceless victims have been swept away, with many more left to fend for themselves, fighting for the little food that will be dumped for them from speeding trucks. As far as economics is concerned, there are little calculations to be made; most of those who perished owned close to nothing to begin with, and it is likely the survivors will continue to be used as exploitable cheap labor. Meanwhile, the Bush administration bought itself a few days of good coverage, squeezed into the space not occupied by the big philosophical questions of our time: “Why does God allow this to happen,” “How can religious people explain something like this?” and of course, the biggest of all: “Does God exist?”
Once the floodwater subsides and the corpses are buried or burned, there will be nothing else to obstruct our daily normality of killing each other and funding the war machine’s exorbitant costs. It’ll be time to resume our “man-made disasters,” which we have learnt to accept with blissful disinterest and without much intellectual chattering about God and 18th-century philosophers. How pompous and full of condescension we humans are.
RAMZY BAROUD is a veteran Arab-American journalist. A regular columnist in many English and Arabic publications, he is editor-in-chief of PalestineChronicle.com and is a program producer at Aljazeera Satellite Television. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org