Roger Rosenblatt Considers the Impact of the Tsunami

January 14, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers the impact of the tsunami.



SPOKESPERSON: …is a good fifteen/twenty feet tall easy!

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I think we never understood the meaning of “overwhelming” until the tsunami in South Asia. “Overwhelming”: Overpowering, to cover over completely. The water was overwhelming, literally, as are the numbers of the dead. The depth and extension of grief are overwhelming. In terms of the news, the story overwhelmed all others: The destruction of property, the nations affected, the cost, the amounts necessary to feed, clothe, house, rebuild. NGOs overwhelmed by the tasks before them. Doctors overwhelmed by the hordes of the ill and the dying.

The survivors overwhelmed– dazed, displaced, orphaned, with nothing left in the world — too big, too much to grasp. Not that it requires great numbers to be overwhelmed. When I arrived in Rwanda years ago to write a story for the New York Times Magazine, it was shortly after the slaughter, I stood on a bridge over the Kagera River, between Rwanda and Tanzania, and watched the bodies of the murdered Tutsis rise over the waterfall, then plunge. I was aware of the enormity of the massacre, something like the enormity of the dead in the tsunami. But I observed only one body at a time.

Every life is a history. In John Donne’s words, “Any man’s death diminishes me.” A single death is overwhelming. Yet some things occur that cover us completely, take our breath away: Odd in a world that understands so much, to be confronted by that which really is unthinkable. Focus on individual stories; break down the big picture into little pictures to attempt to bring the vast size of the event under emotional and intellectual control, to make the experience manageable. Focus on a face or two; focus on the face of a child who emerged alive, if alone. One says how beautiful such faces look, often because there is nothing else to say.

The poor suffer the most from natural disasters because they have the fewest protections and because the world pays them the least attention until something like this happens. Even the tsunami might have passed from western consciousness sooner had not the victims included Europeans and American vacationers. Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, wrote an essay in Time Magazine urging the U.S. to pay more dollars and more heed to the poor before another wave washes over.

Everyone talks about the poor, but no one does anything about them, just like the weather. For the present, what to say? Often we deliberately choose to say nothing, as a ceremonial response. So overwhelming has this disaster been, the principal reactions have consisted of moments of silence, silence serving as the inexpressible expressible.

And in those moments of silence the tsunami continues to grow in the mind: Unimaginable, too big, too much to grasp. It could not have happened. I’m Roger Rosenblatt.