There's something about 120,000 dead that concentrates the mind. I noted just a few days ago that this was likely going to be a story that would have little effect in the West, particularly America, back when the death toll was less than ten percent of what it now is. The President, comfortably ensconced at his villa for the holidays, didn't even think it was important enough to make a public statement until three days had passed. Not even he could stay silent for that long, and our nation's long tradition of stinginess when it comes to the less fortunate, whether it be in our own country or in the Third World, and public pressure to do something will even force Tom Delay and the Red State Crackerocracy to spend a non-trivial amount.
I think it's safe to say that this is going to be THE STORY for awhile; all others, including the "war on terrorism", will have to take a back seat. If it takes a disproportionate focus on the dead and missing among Western tourists in Thailand to get Americans concerned about the miasma of plagues that afflict the Third World, if we need stories about movie producers searching for missing grandchildren, or supermodels hanging on to trees for eight hours, so be it. Our interest in the lives of people outside our continent and Europe tends to focus on how much they are like us (or unlike us), what the late Edward Said called Orientalism. Understanding that it is entirely possible that more Americans may well have died as a result of the earthquake and tsunami than died on 9/11 may be the first step towards understanding that the First Principle of human existence is not Freedom, Liberty, or Democracy, but to simply live.
Our objective should always be how we can create a global community where the simple act of living is not threatened by hunger, eradicable diseases, filthy water, inadequate medical care, and plain ignorance and superstition. How people choose who governs them (if at all) is a secondary, or even tertiary, matter. It reminds me of the controversial moment in Fahrenheit 9/11, the one that pissed off so many Michael Moore's critics on the Right: the scene where the kid is flying a kite before our invasion. Moore was criticized for implying that Iraq was some sort of idyllic society under Saddam, when in fact he was pointing out that even in one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the history of humankind, a normality could exist where children could play in the streets and vendors could sell their wares, without bombs falling and insurgents battling Marines for control of the cities. It wasn't perfect, and it would have been intolerable for almost every American, but in many ways, it beat the alternative we imposed on them.
It was clear when Bush attacked Iraq that the concerns of the Iraqi people were of no concern to him, or else he wouldn't have picked an arbitrary fight with a nation not threatening us and killed tens of thousands of its civilians. Even now, the upcoming elections in that country seem likely to simply substitute the despotism of a strongman with the oligarchy of an elite, without improving the daily lives of its people in any material way. The basic wants of Iraqis, though, are no different than our own, or those of the people of Sri Lanka: to be able to be reasonably assured that we can survive another day.
The horror in the Indian Ocean this past week should remind us that everybody, Americans and Thais, Africans and Indonesians, are interconnected, and that no matter what unimportant differences in our politics, religions, and cultures we might have, our common humanity binds us. When any part of our world suffers, it should impact us as well.