Earthquakes have always tested faith. (That’s faith in the Jewish-Christian-Muslim sense, where a personal, omnipotent deity gets involved in human lives. The Eastern faiths see things differently.) Never underestimate them. They remain the main form of natural disaster. Forty thousand to 50,000 died in Iran in 1990, and 26,000 in 2003; 66,000 died in Peru in 1970; 255,000, by official count, died in China in 1976 (unofficially: 655,000). I admit I don’t even recall some of these, and I’m an avid news watcher. Why do some register more profoundly than others, and why this one so intensely? Although it’s calamitous, it’s not unique. I’ll come back to that.

Take the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Sixty thousand people died. If you extrapolate from a global population about a sixth to a 10th of what it is now, today’s equivalent might be half a million deaths. It affected people in Europe remarkably for an era lacking mass media.

Its “meaning” was debated by Catholic and Protestant believers, and Enlightenment rationalists like Voltaire, who asked a brilliant question. Not the abstract: Why is there such pain and evil in the world? But concretely: Why Lisbon, rather than Paris or London? What did Lisbon do to deserve its fate? His question was brilliant not just because it was hard for believers to answer but because, in a different way, it also challenged non-believers, and still does.

It is the arbitrariness and contingency of such events that make us all shudder, and draw us in fascination. Why them and their kids? Why not us and ours? Why am I here where my ancestors happened to choose to emigrate, and not elsewhere? These decisive accidents in our lives are not just geographic. They extend to birth itself: Why me and not someone conceived seconds after I was? How did I happen to be born into this privilege, and not lose it through some mishap to my parents or the economy or a war or drugs?

Even the grotty disaster tourists rushing to sites of carnage and clicking away catch this sense: “I want to send pictures back to the U.S,” said one. “It shows how fragile life really is.” What do his photos say? It could be us, but it isn’t, and odds are it won’t be, given where we live, our warning systems etc.

This sense that we all participate in the luck of a big draw can itself be an impetus to positive action, by those who chance to be winners. Fifteen years ago, I spent a few days with Torontonian Elspeth Heyworth, who, among many fine works, ran Dixon Hall, a settlement house. From something she said, I asked if her commitment was based on a sense that “there but for the grace of God go I.” She muttered yes through gritted teeth, as if the cliché were embarrassing. Then she went off to India, where she’d been born to missionary parents, for a well-earned holiday — and died swimming in the ocean, caught by the undertow. I thought of her this week.

Does this mean the massive (and pretty self-congratulatory) aid effort is based on a totally noble impulse? Have the haves turned a corner vis-à-vis the have-nots, as some NGO leaders are suggesting? I don’t really think so. If the world — whatever sense it makes to use that term — truly cared about disaster among the needy, then it would already be turning to deal with Africa, too, and the catastrophe of AIDS there. Seventeen million dead, with 6,500 dying and another 9,500 infected every day. That disaster has many traits at work in Asia, including a generation of orphaned kids, and, in Africa’s case, the solutions are known and available. They just aren’t being provided, with any speed.

Then what is driving the huge response, if not mere goodwill? Well, South Asia is a part of the world largely Muslim and not at all Western. In the current context of terror and clash of civilizations, mightn’t a little kindness between the “sides” act as an offset? Couldn’t that be in some people’s minds — not just officials like Colin Powell, who said so explicitly, but also individuals who have lived with great anxiety since 9/11? Different motives can co-exist. The need is real and the aid must be sent, but hell, you could say that about Africa, too.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.