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Making Sense of Disasters | Fr. James V. Schall,
S.J. | August 30, 2005
As a faithful reader of LOsservatore Romano, I cannot help
but notice that the popes are in the habit of sending a letter of condolence
and encouragement when there is a disaster in the world that causes a significant
amount of damage. The disaster could be a train wreck, a flood, a hurricane,
a bombing, a terrorist attack, a volcano eruption, a drought, a war, a tsunami in Asia,
or a storm on Gulf Coast. With this effort from the Holy Office,
almost no disaster goes unnoticed.
Moreover, with the advent of worldwide television and the internet, these
same disasters are immediately on many nightly news programs or websites
throughout the world. It is no longer necessary that the disasters happen
within ones own back yard, or country, or even continent. This information
system has been with us almost a half century now. We are seeing it become
so effective that a cyclone in Iowa, a broken dam in California, a meteorite
in Mongolia, a volcano eruption in Italy, a mass murder in Scotland, or
a beheading in Saudi Arabia is almost as near to us as the lists of fatalities
on our highways. Often more so. We are, as it were, overloaded with disaster.
And, as it were, disasters are "made for TV," much more riveting
than good news.
In former centuries, when a hurricane struck some distant island, or some
ship went down, or some tribal war killed half the population of some country,
it might take five months for the news to reach us. Now we know about it
almost as quickly as those who are in the eye of the storm. It almost seems
as though the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are busy visiting us every
day. We get no time to re-coop. We have frequent hurricanes in Florida,
then tsunamis in South Asia, then floods and mud-slides in California,
blizzards and storms elsewhere. Today we worry about Mobile and New Orleans.
Sudan is an ongoing tragedy. Every airport in the world operates as if some
human disaster may strike at any moment. Homeland Security only exists because
we were not secure.
Is there some way to think about such things? Is there some danger in the
very awareness of them? Surely, we want to know about disasters, dont
we? It would be rather inhuman to be indifferent to them, wherever they
are. How would one go about thinking of them without being either panicked
or indifferent? Are we going to blame God for creating a world in which
earthquakes happen? What if they didnt? Do they serve a purpose? What
if we never had too much snow or too little rain? Would it still be the
The first step, I suppose, is to make a general distinction between disasters
that are caused by nature and those caused by man. Remember, you are equally
dead if the cause is a terrorist or a bolt of lightning. Someone told me
at the time that he heard on television a Muslim cleric maintain that every
death in the Asian tsunamis was directly willed by Allah. This claim
may reveal something about Islamic theology.
On the same basis, however, we could say that God willed the death of everyone
who died yesterday afternoon in Canada, no matter what the cause. Certainly,
God, in creating us, knew we were mortal, subject to death. Even though,
had Adam and Eve not sinned, we might by privilege have been preserved from
death, God knew that we, as finite human beings, were to die. So the fact
that people die whether murdered or by heart attack or flu
is related to the will of God. He evidently set up the whole system.
Moreover, we are told that we know not the day or the hour of our death.
Our deaths still are in the hands of God, even if someone shoots us at high
noon. But it is not like He is wiping us out whenever He feels like it.
All who die, of whatever cause, die in the Lord. Nor does this mean that
they need not be, on their part, prepared to die whenever it should occur.
Half the sermons in the world are or probably should be about
how to prepare for death
It has been said, for instance, that the tsunamis in Asia last winter
constituted one of the greatest natural disasters ever to hit Sweden. Come
again? Yes, there were numerous Swedish nationals vacationing or on business
in this area when the tsunamis struck. Many were lost. Why were these
the ones to go and not those who visited the same area, say, last year?
We do not like to think about these things because we do not like to think
it can happen to us. Even as I write this, we await the toll for the Gulf
storms that pummeled southeast United States.
When I hear of tsunamis or hurricanes, I recall the lesson of the Bridge
of San Luis Re. This famous novel was set in Peru, I think. It was about
a rope bridge, strung over a canyon, that broke several centuries ago. The
plot of the novel asked just why each of the ten or so people on the bridge
was there when it broke, casting them to their deaths. It turns out that
each one was there, as the novel reveals, for some inner reason in the persons
history. They were all graced by the bridges collapse.
We probably can say much the same of those who died in tsunamis, be they
from Sweden or Thailand or our own shores. And we can say the same of those
who died in the hurricanes or in the mud-slides. We can probably say the
same thing of each of the forty or so thousand who are killed each year
in automobile accidents, or those killed in Iraq on all sides, even the
suicide bombers. We can say it of those who die in New York or London hospitals
each day of whatever cause. What we cannot say is that we know what this
cause is. What we are not free to say is that it has no providential purpose
that touches each in his hour.
Another way to look at these disasters is to consider that if we go around
the globe each day (and this has been always true, not just now) there is
always a disaster or two going on someplace. Our brains get overloaded with
disasters and we close many out of our minds. Some disasters, we think,
are more interesting than others. It is natural, so to speak, that some
disaster happens all the time. We do not want to become jaded, but we do
not want to lose a sense of proportion either. Disasters happen. This year,
we have been forced to concern ourselves more with natural than human disasters,
but that is just because the mix is different. The London subway bombings
remind us of another kind of disaster. Both kinds of disasters go on pretty
regularly. If we do not know this, we simply are not paying attention.
A good exercise is to consider that if it is Gods will, so to speak,
that raging storms hit a certain part of the world every once in a while,
even only every century, it is likewise Gods will that the sun comes
up every morning, that it rains in Spain, and that deer and antelope play
on their home on the range. In short, every day may bring natural disasters
someplace in the world, but every day brings crops growing, rivers flowing,
birds flying, babies born, and stars shining. Evidently, we cannot have
one without the other. And on the whole, the blessings far outweigh the
disasters, though we all remain mortal even in the best of times.
We must distinguish, as I mentioned, natural and humanly caused disasters.
There is a temptation, and it is to seek the blame for natural disasters,
as if somehow they could be prevented. We should do what we can, but at
what cost? We are a litigious society and want to blame someone (usually
not ourselves, of course) for our problems. To a certain politicized mind,
every disaster must have a culprit. And of course, at some stage, it usually
does. I recall during my Roman years, there was a huge flood in the Florence
area. Much aid was sent from other parts of the world, but too much of it
seemed unusable, or to be sidetracked, or never got there, or was stolen
and sold. The same thing probably happens in most disasters. We should be
more surprised if it did not. Still, we wonder what other countries will
send aid to Americans overcome by Gulf storms.
The subject of who aids whom across the world is one in need of much attention
for it contains a philosophic lesson of great significance. Whether anyone
likes to admit it or not, the Untied States has become the chief source
of international aid. It usually has the resources and the delivery capability,
and yes, often, the heart. What is the source of this notion that wherever
someone is in trouble because of a disaster, help ought to be sent? Even
though it is secularized, it probably is Christian charity in ultimate inspiration.
Not every nation or culture rushes to the aid of others. And often the question
is, "is it aid or a quid pro quo?"
Yet, there are political dangers even to the most generous of sentiments.
When a disaster hits someplace in the world, we say that it is our responsibility.
Does this imply a claim to world power? Are we constituted the worlds
caretaker? Certainly not a few accusations and suspicions have been made
in this direction of aid meaning power. The general principle holds that
the primary responsibility for aid is that of the country in which it happens,
or surrounding ones.
What if said countries are poor or disorganized or corrupt? Some want to
make the United Nations and its agencies bear the main responsibility, as
if the U.N. is exempt from the problems of corruption and is equipped to
provide the aid efficiently. Usually, it is not. We have seen enough of
the United Nations to be cautious, I think. Still, whoever will help will
be a help, in the long run, provided help is not a subtle way of gaining
control. Again, I suspect that behind this question of aid to disaster there
lies serious theological questions about concern, ability, and willingness.
We should think of natural disasters and prepare for them. We have forest
fire fighting services. We have even some ability to predict earthquakes
and volcano eruptions. We have fairly accurate weather forecasts, as we
see on daily television or on the internet. We have police and armies. We
do not worry too much about how many people were killed when Mt. Vesuvius
blew up, or Krakatoa in 1883, or the blizzards of the eighteenth century.
In a decade, no doubt, the Swedish tourists will be back on South Asian
beaches in droves provided our planes still fly safely and avoid disasters
that have human causes. New Orleans will have its Mardi Gras.
Disasters human and natural will undoubtedly continue. St. Augustine was
always very good on this point. We should not doubt that they are given
to us, ultimately, that we might ask about our condition and purpose in
this world. None of us will be here in a century, whatever disaster may
or may not happen in the meantime. That is, provided science does not find
a way to keep us alive for two centuries, a feat that would, in my view,
be probably nothing but another unmitigated disaster.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of
Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing,
Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal
Read more of his essays on his
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