Sunday afternoon, anyone turning on cable news would have seen two breaking stories: Thousands dead in Asian tsunami, and thousands of Americans delayed at airports. Unspeakable tragedy in Asia, tremendous inconvenience in the United States. Lost children, lost luggage.
Days later, that story from the other side of the world has evolved into something that has vividly placed the concerns of Americans into perspective. There have been other catastrophes around the world in recent years, but this one is of a different order, not just bigger but crueler, a great swallowing of human life, one that devoured children preferentially.
This has our full attention. And we may find ourselves wrestling with some difficult questions. What is the right response to the suffering of people far away? What can we do, what should we do, where do we even start?
And on why Americans suddenly started giving more to charitable organizations days after the disaster:
The holidays have put people in the mood to give, Sherman said, but that doesn't explain the phenomenal response. Another factor, she said, is that the visual images from Asia have unearthed a painful memory.
"It is a little bit of a flashback from 9/11 when you saw the people walking the streets of New York in a state of trauma, looking for their loved ones."
And now suddenly we meet these people, in photographs and videos, and so many of them are dead -- including children, eyes closed, lying on the ground, who in a kinder world would be merely sleeping.
Stanley Hauerwas, professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, said that although Americans are a charitable people, we are also traditionally isolationist. We don't know much about the rest of the world and have little familiarity with the lives of people in places like Indonesia.
"Americans are a very generous people, both among themselves and for others. But they don't have any idea how to be generous. We're protected from the suffering of other lives," Hauerwas said yesterday.
On President Bush's delay in addressing the tragedy:
President Bush, meanwhile, continued to vacation, unseen and unheard through Tuesday, and the world may well have wondered what kind of catastrophe would be sufficient to interrupt the president's agenda of clearing brush and riding bikes. Yesterday morning the president finally made a formal statement and wore a suit and tie to connote that he is on the job, if perhaps 72 hours too late.