A tragedy beyond belief

Macleans, Canada
Jan 3 2005

A tragedy beyond belief

We once could close our minds to others’ disasters — but the world
is smaller now


Phi Phi Island, off the coast of Thailand, is — or was — one of
those unbelievably lovely, restful places where you go to temporarily
abandon all cares in the world. During a week there 15 years ago, I
spent hours literally staring into space — mesmerized by the perfect
beach and the remarkable colour of the ocean, so bright it was almost
teal. The island’s tranquility contrasts with the much larger Phuket
nearby, which has a well-deserved reputation as Party Central. Both
places have provided great getaways — depending on how you take your
pleasure — which is why it is even harder to realize they are now
among the most deadly, devastated places on Earth. After the Dec. 26
tsunami that brought such phenomenal devastation to Asia and East
Africa, more than 300 bodies were found on tiny Phi Phi; the toll
around Phuket island runs into the thousands, and the final total may
not be known for months.

The nature of tragedy is that it can take months or sometimes years
before we fully comprehend how much it has changed everything. The
events of 9/11 were like that: even as we watched, with horrible
fascination, the televised replays of aircraft crashing into the
World Trade Center, it still wasn’t immediately possible to fathom
that the world really had just become a much different place. Three
years on, we feel the effects in ways both small (long lineups at
airports and vastly increased security) and large (the much more
polarized — and dangerous — nature of global politics).

The Dec. 26 tsunami is such an event. The first reports of the death
toll, though terrible, were in line with other tragedies that mankind
has endured in recent years — a 1988 earthquake in Armenia killed
25,000; a 1998 hurricane in Central America took 15,000 lives; a 2001
quake in India killed 20,000. And there was the consoling thought
that the initial estimate of 13,000 dead was probably too high — as
is often the case in the aftermath of disaster. (After the 2001
Indian earthquake, the first estimate was 100,000 dead.)

This has been the awful exception to that rule. With each day in the
immediate aftermath, the estimate of the tsunami’s toll doubled —
then doubled again and again, to beyond 100,000. In the months ahead,
disease, tainted water and spreading germs from rotting food and
outdoor toilets will drive that total far higher.

Years ago, I read a study of the print media that came to roughly
this conclusion: equivalent space is usually devoted to coverage of
hundreds of people dying in a far-off corner of the world, dozens of
people dying in North America, and a couple of people dying in the
city in which the newspaper operates. The reasons were that we care
much more about events on our doorstep (which remains true) and we
don’t feel the same empathy for faraway people from other cultures
(which, in a multicultural society, is now much less true). The sting
of loss extends everywhere, including here: as many as 85 Canadians
remain missing, and we may never know how many Canadians who were
born elsewhere lost family members. You’ll find a list of contacts on
page 27 for organizations offering aid. Be generous and remember: the
world is a smaller place in every way than it once was. And Phi Phi
Island will never again be a place where we can escape all cares.