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THINK globally

by Archives September 7, 2005

Hello and welcome to Think Globally, The Concordian’s new weekly look at current affairs. The goal of this column is to look at world events and issues, local, national and global, in ways you might not see in the mainstream press. I’ll also try to highlight some stories that fly under the radar of the news industry and explain why they’re significant. Feedback and suggestions for topics are welcome and an effort will be made to address substantive criticism. Together we’ll circle the world and the weeks’ top stories.

Without question, the story that’s received the most attention from the press this week was the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and it’s aftermath. As of Monday the mayor of New Orleans was predicting as many as 10,000 deaths in that city alone, to say nothing of the rest of Louisiana and Mississippi. Entire communities have been destroyed by the Category 4 hurricane and the loss of roads and bridges are preventing rescue workers from providing relief a week after the storm’s passage.

While these kinds of natural disasters are by no means rare, they almost always occur “over there”, in a place far from the first world. The tsunami that devastated the coasts of Indonesia and Thailand last December received an enormous amount of coverage here, and the aid from North America, Europe and Australia was swift and generous. But the overwhelming poverty of the victims and the lack of infrastructure in the countries worst hit by the wave made it easy for those in the developed West to view the disaster as another Third World issue. Like the recurring famines on the African continent, it was possible to feel pity for the suffering and even to try to help by raising awareness and funds for the relief effort, without really identifying with the victims’ situation.

Hurricane Katrina may have changed the way we see natural disasters and especially our degree of empathy for their victims. The storm struck a major urban area in our part of the world, killed people who live in houses just like ours, worked at the same jobs and attended universities like this one and who look like us and speak our language. Katrina has swept away some of our most cherished misconceptions about the world.

For those living in the developed world, it’s easy to feel that our technological advancement creates a buffer against the forces of nature. Our old bridges still span our waterways, our buildings remain standing decade after decade and our cities grow outwards around their old quarters. We live in a bubble of well-built and carefully maintained infrastructure that seems indestructible because we’ve never seen it fail.

Also, while earthquakes, mudslides and hurricanes get their share of attention from the major news outlets while they rage, the aftermaths of these disasters are ignored. These stories tend to fall off the front page quickly, leaving us with a snapshot view of the devastation and no sense of the ongoing crises, such as the lack of housing, fresh water, food and medicine, and the epidemics that sweep through the displaced populations in the weeks and months that follow. It’s easy to forget that after the storm abates, the real humanitarian disasters are only beginning.

Finally, these disasters in faraway places don’t shake our sense of the permanence of our own societies and civilization. This is especially true of North Americans, who did not have to watch our cities pounded to rubble in the Second World War the way Europeans did. We were spared the collapse of our governments and the loss of civil law that came with it. We even made it through the half-century Cold War without an attack on our soil, and emerging victorious and reinforcing our belief in the stability of our system. Not since the American Revolution have North Americans experienced the breakdown of our civil order or the collapse of our own society.

Seeing a major city like our own ravaged by forces beyond our control challenges the belief that our technology raises us above nature’s reach. Watching the richest and most advanced society in history stand helpless to rescue, treat, shelter and feed its own citizens a week after the storm’s passage teaches us that there are no quick fixes to disasters of this scale, no matter where they happen.

But watching an American city descend into lawlessness and anarchy in the wake of this disaster is as traumatic as seeing the devastation itself, because it shakes our sense of the permanence of our civilization. The stories coming out of New Orleans are almost beyond belief: armed looters robbing hospitals at gunpoint, attacking rescue workers and thugs committing rapes and murders in the very shelters where the masses of refugees are trapped, with the police and military powerless to stop them. The total breakdown of civil society forces us to wonder how far from barbarity we are and how fragile the barriers are that keep us from giving in to our worst instincts.

Even after New Orleans has been rebuilt and normal life has resumed the most troubling aspect may be what we’ve learned about ourselves.

Neglected Story of the Week: With all eyes on Iraq and its draft constitution, two events with huge implications for the future of the region have taken place almost unnoticed. First, the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Israel met for the first time and began to discuss the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two states. While the government of Pakistan insists that a normal relationship is impossible until a Palestinian state has been created, the timing of the meeting clearly suggests that Pakistan views Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza as a big step in the right direction.

The second story, which is related to the first, is the official state visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Afghanistan, and the announcement that the governments of New Delhi and Kabul see themselves as partners in the region. That an Islamic state is calling India an ally will not go unnoticed in the region’s capitals. This is especially true for Pakistan, which has a hostile though improving relationship with India, and which was the chief sponsor of the deposed Taliban regime that the Karzai government replaced.

While it’s still too early to tell whether these regional realignments are laying the groundwork for a lasting peace or a new round of conflict, there’s no doubt that the region is changing, and these changes are creating diplomatic opportunities that would have been unthinkable four short years ago.

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