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Thoughts on the Unthinkable

January 16, 2005|Robert Coles; Richard Rodriguez; Deborah Tannen; Carlos Fuentes; Katha Pollitt

The tsunami in South Asia caused unimaginable death and devastation. The sheer enormity of the event is difficult to assimilate, intellectually and emotionally. We asked five thinkers how they comprehended the disaster.

'The natural world we had taken for granted'

Robert Coles

The tsunami tragedy in South Asia saddened me for the tens of thousands who died, for the tens of thousands who suffer as survivors. It also took me back to 1938, when a hurricane lashed Greater Boston. I was a fifth-grader then, and I still vividly recall leaving the Roger Wolcott School for the walk home, which was not far -- when all of a sudden I saw my mother standing across the street. Her face registered concern, and her words told me why: "A hurricane is coming, and let's get back to the house right away."

Those words have stayed with me, as has the memory of her, my brother, Bill, and me in our house, without electricity and the wind outside howling incessantly; soon enough, trees came down hard, including one on our roof. Even now, I can hear us all worriedly listening, watching, waiting -- and yes, wondering: What will happen if the hurricane continues?

We could only speculate about what lay ahead -- even as we and our friends in the neighborhood took note, days after the hurricane, of the severe damage to property and to the natural world we had taken for granted. Not least, we asked questions: What causes such hurricanes, and what might be done in the future to safeguard against such an event?

For my father, an engineer and a scientist, there were explanations of cause and effect to consider (and offer us kids). For my mother, steeped in the Bible and in the novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Melville and the stories of Chekhov, there was life's inevitable drama to ponder, the shifts and turns of fate, chance, circumstance.

Thinking about the tsunami, I can hear my parents talking about the hurricane, can remember hearing it come at us suddenly endangered folks, rendered alarmed, afraid and newly vulnerable.

-- Coles is James Agee professor of social ethics at Harvard University and the author of the "Children of Crisis" series.


'Many countries, many tongues, many altars, drowned'

Richard Rodriguez

During the afternoon, on the day after Christmas, I heard about an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean, and the tsunami.

Is there another day of the year as vulnerable to regret as Dec. 26? The wrapping papers exploded. The wrong toys, wrong motives, wrong sizes, the wrong family.

By early evening, the proportions were apparent -- many countries, many tongues, many altars drowned.

Dan Rather was on vacation. No correspondents combed those wasted beaches.

I warmed the turkey leftovers as I watched the same video, running over and over: The placid beach, the white line on the horizon, the surge of brown water, the camera lens turning inland as the witness ran.

The president was in Crawford, Texas. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was on vacation. Everyone in my building was away.

The garbage man emptied the bins as usual, at dawn on Monday. During the night, the numbers of dead had swelled and rolled and lifted to an unimaginable height.

That second day, the first-person stories gathered. English had to speak for the silent eyes; tourists for the natives. A grip on a child's hand lost; one family's decision to turn left, rather than right.

I could not remember another event so epic, yet so intimate. No reporter to ask, "What do you feel?"

Not until Tuesday would the official world wake from slumber. Diplomats expressed sympathy. Chancelleries announced aid. Reporters were dispatched. Helicopters began delivering water.

The week progressed. The president said. Movie stars promised. Aid professionals knew.

Ex-President Clinton and ex-President Bush were enlisted by the White House to ask Americans to contribute money.

But millions had already sent.

We had heard the stories, seen the homemade videotapes. Strangers who saw death on the day after Christmas had entered our lives, unmediated. We knew exactly what to do.

-- Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."


'The many reduced to one'

Deborah Tannen

Reading about the tsunami victims, I'm drawn to the accounts of European tourists, even though tourists were a small minority of its victims. I have been a tourist at seaside resorts, so I can readily imagine myself in their position. Yet I am ashamed: Why do I focus on those with whom I can identify?

The answer is in the question: I care because I can identify with them. "Caring" means feeling an emotional response when regarding others' experience. Where can these emotions come from, if not from a sense -- even if inaccurate -- of what you would feel in their place? And this raises a second ethical dilemma.

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