Brendan McCall

Giving in the Face of Disaster

   What does it mean to give? For me, the answer is fairly simple. This Christmas, I bought my brother a number of 80’s television shows that have been released on DVD. I know for a fact that he loves all the shows, so my gift was greatly appreciated.   In the end, my act of giving paid off. My brother, always aware that I am particularly hard to shop for, gave me a sizable check. It saved us both a headache, since I wanted CDs, and bands like My Bloody Valentine, the Creation, Love, and the Kinks float below his radar. Sometimes money is the best gift.
   Giving on a larger scale – nation to nation – is a similarly reciprocal endeavor. Tit for tat; you scratch my back, you know the rest. The stakes are higher, and during times of crisis, the strings that lay behind gifts, such as humanitarian aid, are particularly troubling.
   The day after Christmas gave the world a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Shortly after, the US State Department pledged a enough money to the hardest hit countries to blush their developing economical cheeks. Naturally, the money the US promised is of no serious concern to us. Much like overhead after making a widget, it pays for itself once the product is sold. We all know the amount when it comes to humanitarian aid; it’s public record because it makes us look good. We can sleep peacefully because our wealth is making
the world a better place, but what exactly goes along with our generosity?
   It might turn out that our cheeks should be blushing. Looking back at the series of earthquakes that rocked Turkey in 1999, what lays behind a “benevolent act of giving” becomes more complicated. The earthquakes captivated the American audience for a few weeks, and everyone agreed the situation was bad and something should be done. As one of the largest recipients of US military aid during the 1990’s, Turkey knew how to cash acheck. Its military, puffed up with new toys to help slaughter the Kurdish inconvenience, was completely unwilling to deal with a humanitarian disaster, even one that would eventually bring an end to about 20,000 lives. Seemingly setting the Turkish precedent, Nicaragua’s earthquake and subsequent relief effort almost three decades earlier was even more shameless. Foreign aid flowed in, while Samoza sat back and did nothing. One wonders if the aid we
give is being spent as benevolently as our smiles.
   During this most recent natural onslaught, our aid to Indonesia seems to bring up a number of important and publicly unasked questions. During this long international moment of excess we call the War On Terror, Indonesia has been continuing its long war against its own people. From Aceh to West Papua, the Indonesian military has unleased a reign of terror recalling its exploits in East Timor. Following the “with us or with the terrorists” doctrine, the government of Indonesia has been placing US interests, like the oil companies and other multinationals, before the lives of its own people. This is nothing
new, considering all that took place during their long war against Communism.
   The parallel between Indonesia and Turkey is especially striking. Shortly before the earthquakes, the Turkish government jailed and sentenced Abdullah Ocalan to death. A month later their world collapsed. The potential of a high profile inconvenience was overturned by tragedy. Never mind the rights of one Kurdish man and the struggle he represents; this is the end of the world.

   Never mind the pure incompetence and inability of the government to respond to the unimaginable pain of its citizens. Never mind the fact that their military was one of the largest and best suited to mobilize for something of this magnitude. Turkey is just another backwards country unable to deal with its own problems without the guidance of the “Free World,” so more money – more dependence – is the only solution. Never mind how our gift is spent.
   The most pressing question at this moment might not be, “How much should I give?” Maybe we should ask ourselves, “In the face of this horrific disaster, is our government’s aid – our giving – a “good” thing?”
   I’m not so sure the answer is the ever-emphatic “Yes!”
   Perhaps I am naive enough to believe that humanitarian aid should support and empower the victims and not standing governments. I might even believe that aid should actually help people. Regardless of my pention for sentimentality, the tsunami brought an entire region of the world to its knees. This is the proverbial “bottoming out,” when the addict finally realizes they have a problem and sets out on the path to recovery. Through this process, community is essential. Family and friends intervene (give their support, etc.), and you
have the potential for a happy ending. You know, Nikki Sixx dies in an
ambulance, comes back to life, and Motley Crue sells another album.
   What I mean here, though, is that people help people get better. Kindness and generosity are central motivators in the narrative of community. The modern sensibility urges this notion of community to be expanded on the global level. Savage ends, like those brought about by walls of water, should be ameliorated by those privileged enough not to face them. Of course, endings for addicts and developing countries are rarely happy. Endings for Motley Crue are even worse.
   Or take the beggar on the street, sitting disillusioned with a Styrofoam cup in front of him. Where is the unified call to action for making his life better? What if he gets up and asks you for money? What if he looks twice at your girlfriend? What if he breathes on you? Bar the door if a dab of spittle lands on your face when he talks to you. It’s an insufferably inconvenient situation, which is why it has become such a popular sport to find creative
ways of avoiding the homeless and the destitute.
   Once, I saw a middle-aged, professional-looking man spin through five homeless people (a veritable gang, mind you) – twisting and turning so gracefully that it would make a ballerina smile. People living their daily lives have been trained to pass a homeless beggar without thinking twice. If you can do so with a little flair, it’s even better. The suffering of the homeless is so normalized that it’s actually an inconvenience for anyone privileged enough to be able to walk by and not think twice. Why should it be any other way? They’re bums, and they’ll only spend your pennies on alcohol. They need to get
off their asses and get a job. Your silence might just be the push to get them off their feet. You’re doing the right thing.
   In the days after the tsunami, those of us watching in our warm, cozy homes began to learn the magnitude of loss. Numerous “liberal” editorials were printed condemning George Bush’s silence. Setting aside how bizarre it is to see so many editorials written by people who did not want to see Bush get reelected suddenly stand up and demand a presidential Bush, how could Bush’s words – as awkward and bewildered as they usually are – make any difference? If my life was swallowed by a pillar of water, the last place I would like to get sympathy is from an Imperial cowhand. I won’t mess with Texas, please don’t mess with me.
   More importantly, though, the inherent contradiction of this condemnation of silence lies in the fact that so many of those writers surely pass beggars every day of their lives without looking them in the eye. Suddenly, they drop $10 off their Master Card online and send it to some bureaucratic relief organization, and they’re making a difference. Is hypocrisy the only alternative to silence? Bush’s doesn’t look a region eye to eye in its weakest collective moment, and there is something wrong. Fine, that’s acceptable, but how much do any of us actually do? If someone really wanted to talk, they would fly off to Sri Lanka and start laying bricks
.
That’s generosity. That’s making a difference.
Tell your story to the rest of us so we can remember how little we actually do, instead of acting like words make any difference.
   The entire situation with Bush is laden with hypocrisy. Pushing his inability to form words aside, Bush is now in the awkward position of being caught in the Pro-Life position on the tsunami and Pro-Choice on our descretion to slaughter Iraqi civilians: the ultimate flip-flop.
   The loss of life from the tsunami is estimated to be between 120,000-150,000, is beyond most people’s ability to fully grasp. It’s unimaginable. It’s beyond tragedy, yet we have spent the last 3 years slaughtering an equivalent number of Iraqi noncombatants (i.e. regular people). Three months ago, estimates placed the Iraqi death count at 100,000. Where is the outpouring sympathy? Who, out of those who challenged Bush’s silence on the tsunami, publicallly came out against his pompous magnanimity on Iraq? “We’re gettin’ the job done!” Leave it at that.
      What is it about the tsunami that made Americans wake up and care? Was it the mass circulation on cable news?   Was it the number or innocence of the victims? Maybe it was Christmas. I doubt it could be the number of victims, considering how many people have exited stage right in Iraq. The innocence factor seems to be eroded in the face of Iraq, as well, since those were people just trying to live their everyday lives. Perhaps it was the immediacy of the disaster that made us flinch. Wars and occupations are long processes, but the tsunami was a flash in the pan with devastating consequenses. Maybe we just get bored with the “long” stories like Iraq. We probably won’t tune in a month from now to see people getting their lives back on their feet after the tsunami, but it’s a sexy story now.
   Regardless of the reasons why one disaster means more to us than another, it’s the reality. Unfortunately, we are the direct cause of the one that’s seems like a prolonged meat-grinder. We don’t talk about that, though. In a sense, the logic of giving holds true in our war in Iraq; after all, we are giving all Iraqis – those fortunate enough to live through the decade of sanctions – the gifts of Freedom and Democracy. We also hit the reset button on their ancient civilization so they could start over and make the perfect society out of the rubble. Few ever get the chance to actually do that, and we’ll be there to look after them. We just won’t talk about the nasty stuff. Just repeat: they are going to vote!
   Regardless of this, the global North has made great achievements in silence. Breast Cancer, AIDS, Global warming, illiteracy, poverty, water, medicine, teen pregnancy: we seem to have a universal abstinence when it comes to talking about these problems or even taking them seriously. Yet when the tsunami breaks through the silence, we can’t look away. God did it, not us.

The tsunami is the ultimate headline. You don’t have to dress it up. You don’t even have to worry about someone stumbling onto something by switching through the channels without seeing the stuffing before the bird. God forbid if someone happened to channel waltz through some news stations and see the horrors without the usual justifications for killing Iraqis. People might actually think something is wrong.
   People die every day, although it should never be under a wall of water that erases the lives of the survivors. Yet, how can anyone judge a good way to die? Is it bad to die in a tsunami? Is it good to die in Iraq? Is it good or bad to die from cancer? The question itself is loaded; the answer is irrelevant. No one should ever die, but people do every day. In the face of this, nothing can ever be given to make the cold reality easier, but we could at least come off as sincere.
   AIDs is bigger than any wave. So is war. Until we start dealing with the threats that dog us every day and not just the ones that jump out at us from our nightmares, we will be walking backwards into the face of yet another wave.
   Time and time again, we meet this rather obvious truth with silence. Reagan did it in the 80’s with AIDs. It took about seven years for Reagan to speak about AIDs. How many people died from his silence? Something like 60,000 cases with about 30,000 deaths States-side by the time he uttered one word.
   Competing mantras rang out: “Death = Silence” vs. “AIDs Kills Fags Dead.” By the time the bell rang, too many men, women, and children wasted away needlessly living the Silverlake Life. This silence made its way into our government’s gifts, and AIDs research funding was little more than a Christmasgift without a card. No money; no words.
   How much is someone’s life worth anyway? How many people can $1 million get us? Can you buy in bulk if you order through the Red Cross? In the New American Century, we will spend $350 million to rebuild an entire region and $200 billion to destroy one country. Imagine Bush trying to explain that one.
Silence can be golden.

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