Our Planet, and Our Duty


New York Times

December 31, 2004

One moment the kids were laughing and skylarking on the beach, yelling and chasing one another, sweating in the warm bright sun. The next moment they were gone.

The world is used to horror stories, but not on the stupefying scale of the macabre tales coming at us from the vast and disorienting zone of death in tsunami-stricken southern Asia. Einstein insisted that God does not play dice with the world, but that might be a difficult notion to sell to some of the agonized individuals who have seen everything they've lived for washed away in a pointless instant.

The death toll now is more than twice the number of American G.I.'s killed in all the years of the Vietnam War. Not just entire families, or extended families, but entire communities were consumed by waters that rose up without warning to destroy scores of thousands of people who were doing nothing but going about their ordinary lives.

On Tuesday The Times ran a big front-page picture taken in a makeshift morgue in southern India. It certainly captured the horror. It looked for all the world like a sandy playground covered with dead children.

Imagination pales beside the overwhelming reality of the tragedy. There were, for example, the grief-stricken throngs, clawing through mud and rubble, peering into the faces of the severely injured, wandering through piles of decaying corpses, in search of loved ones.

The Boston Globe quoted a young man whose college sweetheart was among the more than 800 people killed when a train carrying beachgoers in Sri Lanka was slammed by a 30-foot wall of water that lifted it from the tracks and hurled it into a marsh. "Is this the fate that we had planned for?" cried the young man. "My darling, you were the only hope for me."

Perhaps a third of those killed were children. Many were swept away before the eyes of horrified, helpless parents. "My children! My children!" screamed a woman in Sri Lanka. "Why didn't the water take me?"

The killer waves that moved with ferocious speed across an unprecedented expanse of global landscape flung their victims about with a randomness that was all but impossible to comprehend. People in beachfront dwellings ended up in trees, or entangled in electrical power lines, or embedded in the mud of hillsides. People died in buses, cars and trucks that were swept along by the waves like leaves in a strong wind. Sunbathers were swept out to sea.

In that environment, Einstein must stand aside for Shakespeare, whose Gloucester said: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."

Any tragedy is awful for the relatives of those who perished. But this is a catastrophe of a different magnitude. "This," as one observer noted, "is like confronting the apocalypse."

"What makes it especially frightening is that whole communities have been annihilated," said Dr. John Clizbe, a psychologist in Alexandria, Va., who, until his retirement a couple of years ago, had served as vice president for disaster services at the American Red Cross. He said, "We've known for years now that the emotional devastation that survivors feel and experience is often greater than the physical devastation."

The recovery process is easier, he said, when there is a supportive community to bolster those in need. But in some of the most devastated regions of southern Asia, the regions most in need of support, those communities have vanished.

It's a peculiarity of modern technology that people anywhere in the world can sit back and watch in real time, like voyeurs, the life-and-death struggles of their fellow humans. The planet is growing smaller and its residents more interdependent by the day. We're fully aware that our planetary neighbors in southern Asia are desperately drawing upon the deepest reservoirs of fortitude and resilience that our troubled species has at its disposal.

What this means is that we're the supportive community. All of us. This catastrophe would at least have a silver lining if it moved the people of the United States and other nations toward a wiser, more genuinely cooperative international posture.

William Faulkner, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, said: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."

That's what Faulkner believed. We'll see.

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com
Paul Krugman is on book leave.