Monday, March 21, 2011

The Worst Disaster Since World War II, Part I: The Situation

The Japanese media have described the magnitude of the disaster as the worst since World War II and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With all due respect to commentators who are doing their jobs while clearly in a state of shock, it is worse than that. The war was not completely unexpected nor were people unprepared. The destruction, convulsive and widespread as it was, was spread out over time, giving people a chance to become accustomed to it — up to a point. Further, while there was a great deal (far too much, as in any war) of "collateral damage," primary targets were generally intended to be either military in character, or to destroy the ability to wage war. However bad things got, the situation could be grasped, if not accepted, as "fortunes of war."

The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear emergency were a different thing altogether. Yes, all three were potential disasters for which the Japanese were prepared . . . up to a point. The early warning systems of Japan for earthquakes and tsunami are unequaled in the world. The nuclear power plants had ordinary, even extraordinary safety features. The problem was that the combination of disasters, each alone sufficient to wreak unprecedented destruction, were, taken individually, of a magnitude that could not have been imagined, nor adequate preparation made. Being unimagined singly, the combination . . . words fail. The more or less selective destruction of war, however widespread, cannot be compared to the totality of devastation combined with the cosmic indifference of the forces of nature. In war, you can always blame the enemy. Who do you blame when nature itself seems to have turned against you?

All of this serves to highlight how well the people of Japan are bearing up under the unimaginable, a reaction that could reasonably be described as exemplary. Other places suffering lesser catastrophes might have expected riots, civil unrest, even the fall of the government. The worst disaster-related event in Japan seems to have been a spate of panic-buying by the Japanese public, something not unfamiliar in American cities along the Mason-Dixon line when blizzards are predicted. There have also been some complaints about the slowness of the government to supply accurate information, and a relatively minor incident in which someone stole gasoline from stations near the stricken areas, hampering relief efforts to a degree.

The task now is to develop a viable plan for reconstruction, a subject we will address in later postings in this series. Obviously, any plan must not only address the immediate problems, but finance the future in a ways that lays the foundation for a more just future not just in Japan, but throughout the world. Nothing can prepare us for the unimaginable, any more than anything can make up for what has happened. We can, however, do the best with what we have — and help us all bear up against the worst that life — and nature — can throw against us in the future.

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