(HOST) Recently, commentator David Moats has been thinking about how we respond to disasters – both natural and man-made.
(MOATS) Whenever I read history I’m reminded that life has always been hard.
I just read David McCullough’s book “1776,” and it tells about the enormous travails of that year, not just for Washington’s army, but for whole populations.
Not that populations were that large – Philadelphia had fewer people than Burlington does today. But people were packing
all their belongings and fleeing – from Boston, New York, Philadelphia. A third of New York City burned down after Washington’s army fled. And the American soldiers
were a sorry lot. Many of them didn’t even have shoes
and it was winter.
Disasters encountered today are always greeted with a kind of astonishment, as if it’s the first time it ever happened, as if it’s
not supposed to happen to nice people who are minding their
In fact, it’s been a very rough year. The tsunami obliterated parts of Asia. Katrina did not kill as many people, but it drove millions from their homes, wiped out towns and flooded an important and belov- ed city.
Now the earthquake in Pakistan. The horror engulfing those vil- lages and cities in Pakistan is both very far away and right before us in our living rooms. It’s a reminder of what people have always known, but which blissed-out Americans, snacking in front of the TV, are inclined to forget: that life can be nasty, brutish and short.
In 1776, British and German soldiers carried out a kind of ethnic cleansing as they raped and pillaged their way across New Jer- sey. The rape of Bosnia 10 years ago was not without precedent. The history of the 20th century, even more than the 18th, tells us that.
So what do we do – wallow in despair because life is not as innocent as a TV commercial?
No. I don’t think so. Rather, these realities rip the veil of false innocence from our eyes.
America has never been innocent. Ronald Reagan wanted us to believe it was morning in America, and in some sense we always believe it is. But America’s history is entwined with enormous crimes, not to mention the natural disasters that are so quickly forgotten: the Galveston hurricane, the San Francisco earthquake. Vermont’s flood of ’27 was not an insignificant event. To recognize awfulness as a perennial theme of history is a first step toward realism, and realism is a precondition for hope and for compassion.
We aren’t surprised by an earthquake that kills tens of thousands in Pakistan or Turkey or Mexico. So we ought to be ready – our compassion and our disaster relief ought to be on high alert. It was an amusing reversal when the Mexican army entered the United States to bring in supplies after Katrina. It was also a welcome moment of humility for a nation that sometimes forgets it’s not immune to human hardship. We’re all human. We’re all vulnerable. And compassion is what keeps us human in our vulnerability.
This is David Moats from Salisbury.
David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer (PULL’-it-zer) Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from studios at Middlebury College.