Catastrophes, Aid and Peace Politics

EDITORIAL, 5 May 2008

#7 | Johan Galtung

Four natural catastrophes have touched our hearts theselast years: the tsunami hitting the coastlines of the Indian Ocean; thehurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans, USA; the cyclone hitting Myanmar; and the earthquake hitting Sichuan in China.  All four clearcases of natural violence, nature’s violence, against us, humanbeings.  Of course, we sometimes attribute intent to Nature as revengefor our crimes against her.  Or, beyond that, some intelligent design,some god out to punish us for our sins against His commandments.  Or,even designed by The Evil Himself with Nature as His chosen tool.

Be that as it may.  I feel like mediating, dialoguing with Nature, as usual searching for a solution:

JG: Nature, what you have done lately is unacceptable.  But what was onyour mind, what went on inside you?

Nature: Nothing particular.  Like women I have my rhythms. Maybemoods.  A US president once said, Let Poland be Poland.  How aboutletting Nature be Nature?  Take me for what I am.

JG: But there is so much suffering in the wake of your rhythms as youcall it, so much death.  How about some moderation?

Nature: Wait a little!  My rhythms are well known; you call yourknowledge of me “laws of nature”. I feel bound by them.

JG: So many poor innocent people die when you go wild!

Nature: Listen, I am also studying you. “Laws of humans” I call it. One law is this: the more in my way, the poorer the humans, and themore shaky their habitats.  Do you have to put your poorest people andworst built houses in my driveways?

JG: Touché.  But, less fundamentalism, more moderation?

Nature: When you are drilling, pumping, excavating, exhausting me? Incessantly?  No.  Change your ways and mine will change.

JG: The Laws of Nature seem to be non-negotiable.  But so do the lawsof Humans, making Nature’s violence ride piggy-back on human structuralviolence.  We sacrifice poor people to Nature’s whims.  Not Satan, wehumans use Nature as our tools.

Catastrophes strike, poor people are sacrificed. And then what do wedo?  We come to the rescue of course, aid, even across borders when thecatastrophe is beyond some magnitude.  And then an interesting drama isunfolding: from the human duty to help to the human right to help. Fromoffer to demand.

So the US government refused Cuban physicians entry to help out in theNew Orleans disaster, and Myanmar’s rulers did the same for muchWestern aid – but not for Thai, nor Indian, it seems.  Whereas allalong the Indian Ocean coast-line all countries were welcomed.  Like byChina after the earthquake.

Of course to Washington Cuba, often called “Castro”, is an enemy. Maybe the West is the same for the junta ruling Myanmar?  The West hasonly bad things to say about them, no word for their ability to keepthe country together.  By brutal means, but not more so than whatWashington applies around the world, and in Burmese hands, meaningjunta hands.  Maybe neither Washington nor Myanmar want their enemiesto see them with their pants down, humiliated by Nature?  Maybe thatcuts across the democracy-dictatorship divide?  Maybe they are equallyconvinced, and probably rightly so, that whatever teams come will beheavily stoked with spies and other agents?

But China was hit at a high point of heavy critique from all quartersfor their suppression of the Tibetan people; and yet provided entry fortheir critics.  From the Indian Ocean area this was not a majorproblem.  Aid flowed freely.  But not inside Sri Lanka; not fromColombo to the Tiger areas.

Good arguments can be adduced in favor of the Beijing and against theWashington and Junta line.  Humanity badly needs occasions todepolarize, to let down mental and structural barriers, to let humansbe human.  One such occasion is often made use of: a statesman passesaway, mourners fly in from all corners of the world, there areencounters, or at least speculations thereof, in death’s shadows. Something is above our petty divides in our untidy human landscapes. Our finite existence may make us smaller than our divides.  Deathunites.

So do catastrophes, in principle.  You may not love those who stretchout a helping hand, and you may rightly assume that there is somethingelse in the hand hidden behind their back.  And yet, receive aid.  Playthe game of Nature unites, and by playing that let the game come true. Give the Cubans a chance to show their amazing skills.  Give the West achance, they also have much to offer even if more material than human.

And then, maybe a miracle could happen?  That all those teams,struggling to extract the live, the semi-alive and the dead from thedebris, may start reflecting on why most victims are so poor?  Poorlyhoused, indeed, poorly clad, underfed.  Maybe Nature is right in herstudy of the Law of Humans?  Maybe that could lead to some reflectionon why poor fishermen are over-represented, or pupils in a badly madeschool?  And maybe one day, miracles above miracles, the common factormay dawn upon them all, some kind of Structure unites?

A catastrophe is, indeed, a calamity.  But it also spells opportunity,like a famous Chinese character.  So do receive aid, do admit you needit, celebrate what unites: death and human suffering, an overpoweringNature and–at times–how unjustly we humans have distributed the risksin Nature’s way.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 5 May 2008.

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