In this modern day and age when a disaster strikes – be it natural or man made – the news travels fast and it impacts on the lives of many of us far remote from the actual disaster.
Within minutes of the events of 9/11 we in London sat stunned, numbed by the carnage caused by a few fanatical, bloody minded (or should I say mindless?) people. When the inevitable – knee-jerk-like – retribution followed, we watched, almost disbelievingly, the destruction unleashed by the might of the US military on its perceived enemies. The aftermath of that disaster is still unfolding and its consequences are incalculable. We may yet find ourselves unwittingly embroiled in another World War, a catastrophe that - by comparison - could easily make World War 2 look nothing more than the result of naughty children playing with a box of matches.
When the Tsunami hit those beaches around the Indian Ocean, once again we watched aghast the destruction, carnage visited onto those impoverished lands. This event is on a scale that is almost unimaginable and it touched far more people than those directly involved in this, nature’s worst disaster for a long time. It will take weeks, months, or even longer, to assess the final death toll and nobody can calculate how long it will take to re-establish a semblance of normality in the affected countries. And who can calculate the long-term effects the world over after a disaster that touched not only the locals, but also many thousands of visitors and their relatives? Children, mothers and fathers unaccounted for, injured, or dead, from countries far removed from the locality where the disaster struck. Here in London we learned, with sadness, the loss of a daughter and granddaughter of a well-known and much respected actor and film director; victims of this disaster. Just two amongst the many thousands of visitors perished. This individual tragedy - perhaps more than some others - symbolises the global nature of this catastrophe.
Had this disaster affected the native population of the same area only, had there been no visitors, tourist, or large number of foreigners present and involved, I cannot help wondering, just how much or how little press and media coverage would have been given and just how generous the public’s reaction would have turned out to be.
There have been – in the recent past – devastating flash floods, hurricanes, landslides and earthquakes all around the globe, some with very large number of casualties, with very little news coverage of the events. I cannot comment on how generous or inadequate was the help offered to those countries and the people affected, I simply have no figures to compare, but I rather suspect – even at the risk of being labelled cynical – that the generosity of the response in this disaster was mostly on account of the very large number of foreign tourist involved and affected in this tragedy, which was played out to vivid full coverage the world over. This event pricked the conscience of the world, more than at any previous occasion, because there were so many foreign visitors and their relatives affected.
As one watches the news and the nightmare of the events unfolding, it is hard to imagine the full horrendous impact on those who actually experienced and are still experiencing first hand this devastating disaster. However vivid, shocking and hard hitting the images are on the television screens that bring the news into the living rooms of millions of people, these images can only convey a fraction of the reality. None of us, not even the survivors at the epicentre, can fully comprehend the magnitude of this disaster. How do I know and why do I say this? Because experience taught me at least this much truth. I am a survivor of two man made disasters. I experienced the fear, the horror, the reality of air raids; aerial bombardments through a direct hit on a shelter I shared with hundreds of people, where hundreds died and where I had to crawl over bodies to get out after the raid. I experienced the fear of running for my life and hiding - like a hunted animal - under assumed names, from those hell-bent on our extermination and all because we were the hated and despised Jews.
I witnessed and experienced the destruction, desolation and hopelessness of a country first enslaved by fanatics and than “liberated”, raped and enslaved again by a vengeful Soviet Army. I’ve seen the carnage, the devastation and felt the stench of death in my nostrils. Almost a third of my immediate family, uncles, aunts, grandmother, and cousins perished in the carnage, together with countless friends and more distant relatives. I know the pain of losing loved ones, almost at a stroke. But none of my experiences measured up to and prepared me for the experiences of those who came back from the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and other camps and from the numerous “Death Marches” of slave labourers, the Nazi fanatics marched through Europe. I have met and seen many of the survivors, heard their stories, could see and feel the anguish reflected in their eyes… but there was no way, I could feel and experience the sheer horror and brutality they had experienced.
I also experienced the gripping fear and feeling of helplessness, when one early morning found myself, together with my young wife, thrown out of bed on the fifth floor of a violently shaking and swaying block of flats, when a “mild” earthquake hit Budapest in 1955 or 56. It was a terrifying experience… but how could it possibly compare to the experience of a person dug out from the rubble, several days after an earthquake hit Turkey a few years ago? No comparison whatsoever.
So how could any one of us, who are not directly involved with this tragedy, could possibly comprehend the magnitude of the horror they had experienced and are still experiencing?
No amount of experience can prepare one fully to comprehend a disaster on this scale.
When the first news came through I felt numb. My first thought was: Oh please, not again… and especially not now when people the world over want to relax, get away from all their worries and sorrows and want to celebrate, want to feel happy with their families. But nature’s disasters know no bounds of holidays or celebrations. They happen. Since the arrival of the first news, as more and more of the horror was unfolding on our screens, I wept… on more than one occasion… Nothing in my personal experiences could teach me or immunise me against the impact of this catastrophe.
Yet, as I desperately try to detach from the agonies of those directly affected and try to find some logic and order in the chaos of devastation, I am forced to make comparisons between natural and man made disasters. As I write these lines the estimated death toll stands at approximately 150,000, but with the realisation that, at the ultimate count, it may reach a much-much higher figure. A horrendous toll by any standard. A natural disaster is unavoidable; nobody can accurately forecast an earthquake and even with a scientifically monitored Tsunami warning system the death toll in this disaster perhaps could have been mitigated, but not altogether avoided.
Man-made disasters are more often than not deliberate, or consequences of carelessness or miscalculations and are avoidable. In the disaster that members of my family perished, the estimated death toll in my country – Hungary - from the Jewish community alone was in the region of six hundred thousand. Not one of them need have perished. That disaster should never have happened.
In the atomic wasteland that was left of Hiroshima the estimated death toll was between 240 and 270 thousands. And that was just one city’s death toll in one country in a conflict that killed many-many millions. Stalin’s purges and the famine in the Soviet Union claimed an estimated 25 million lives.
A disaster of diabolical proportions is unfolding in front of our very eyes in the Sudan right now. Nobody knows the figures yet. Very few people seem to care either. Daily hundreds, if not thousands of innocent people die unnecessarily in Africa from starvation, disease and conflicts.
The death toll in Iraq is already over a hundred thousand and rising daily. Neither side seems to be willing to reconsider. These disasters should never happen.
Periodical major environmental changes have always been a pattern on planet Earth, right from the very beginning. Current climactic changes, however, that are greatly influenced and aggravated by human mismanagement of our environment threaten us with catastrophic consequences, unless we wake up to this fact and change our ways drastically and rapidly. A major man-made environmental
catastrophe is avoidable. It only requires goodwill, adjustment and coordination. This should not be beyond human capabilities.
Are there lessons to be learned? Yes, there are, but do we ever learn? One obvious lesson is just how fragile, how hazardous life is on this planet.
Far too long we have been ignoring the warning signs, contributing to nature’s hazards by bad planning or no planning at all, large scale deforestation, environmental pollution, biological experimentation without adequate safeguards, squandering natural resources and inadequate provisions for coping with natures disasters.
But in all of the gloom this disaster caused recently there was just one chink of light that we should truly learn from and hang onto. There was an almost immediate international response of help that is still gaining momentum. There is help; cooperation on the ground and behind the scenes, proving that humanity could unite in a common cause. If disasters are not altogether avoidable, at least the effects can be mitigated by a concerted and united human effort of humanitarian aid. The general public responded immediately and with open hearts, whilst governments and politicians were much slower and much more calculating and now seem to be tripping over each other for some geo-political advantages.
However, there are now already military personnel from various countries on the ground, working side by side in harmony, to aid the victims and to bring relief and hope for the survivors. A laudable role for armies and a laudable cause to “fight” for. I wish this were the beginning of a more useful permanent role for the (un)-armed forces of all countries in the future. But this, I fear, is only an over optimistic wish.
What of the spiritual response to this disaster? Questions are already being asked, is there a God, is this God’s will, is this a punishment for the sins of mankind, or a warning of more horrendous Divine vengeance to come, an Apocalypse, Armageddon, or is it perhaps a sign for mankind to unite?
There are some, a substantial number of fanatical believers who, with Bible in one hand, gleefully tell us that this disaster is a sign from Heaven, heralding in the Apocalypse and the second coming of the Messiah. They seem to relish the thought, in their self-righteous arrogance, that all the “disbelievers” – with other words all those who don’t necessarily accept their Apocalyptic vision of this kind of “Divine Truth” (probably well over two thirds of the world population) – will perish and be doomed to eternal damnation, whilst only they, the righteous believers will inherit heaven and earth. They are so sure of this truth, that they are becoming self-declared and willing servants of God, trying to convert the rest of the world, whilst they intend to facilitate and hasten, by any means at their disposal, the coming final battle of Armageddon. They have political clout to do so, combined with financial power. Perhaps a handful of them even have the wherewithal to survive a “nuclear winter” that would follow Armageddon.
This fanatical fringe – politically astute, powerful, manipulative and unscrupulous in exploiting the faithful, genuine and honest, if mislead and unquestioning followers – seem to have one answer only to the problems that beset humanity. Since Armageddon is a Biblical prophecy, it must be God’s will and therefore it is their sacred duty to make sure that the prophecy is fulfilled. That in the meantime they fill their own pockets is just a natural added benefit to them. If you doubt that good money is raised whilst promoting the “prophecy”, check out the various websites and other outlets and see the variety of “literature” and other assorted items (including T-shirts) available for purchase. (As if you could wear a T-shirt in Paradise!)
Of course there is another group of fanatics, with slightly different concept of how to get into Paradise quickly and how to make sure that their version of the “Divine Revelations”, prophesised by their prophets, could bring fire and brimstone onto this world. Since these two versions of “Divine Truths” are conflicting and mutually exclusive, it does not take a genius to contemplate and calculate the consequences of a clash that could evolve if the two camps of protagonists believe and insist that only armed conflict can settle the issues. That could surely lead to an Apocalyptic battle, with no winners but only losers to emerge, that would prove this current natural disaster to be a mere child’s play by comparison.
History should have taught us that religion and religious, or quasi-religious, dogmas were often the initiators of man made disasters. The Inquisition – in the name of God – tortured and killed thousands, the Holy Crusades likewise. Pogroms in Russia, Poland and the Ukraine extinguished the lives of many thousands, all instigated by religious fanaticism, combined with hatred. The Conquistadors, with the Cross in one hand and sword in the other, decimated the native population of South America. Religious zeal, combined with greed for land, property and gold drove “God fearing” Christians to convert, kill or enslave thousands of natives in North America.
A conflict – dressed up as a fight against oppression and exploitation on the one hand and a fight against terrorism on the other – but with a serious undertone of religious hatred and fear, fuelled by a vociferous minority, if allowed to escalate can easily lead to the fulfilment of the Apocalyptic prophecy.
If that happens, it will not be God’s will, but our own making and there will be no salvation at the end.
Humans have a tendency for taking themselves too seriously. They often profess to be the “Crowning Glory of Creation”, a creation that only exists for the benefit of mankind. There is only a slow awakening to the fact that the Universe is vast, our planet is nothing more than an insignificant speck in this vast space, and in all probability ours is not the only planet with life on its surface. In this vast Universe colossal events take place constantly, events that lead to the birth and disappearance of entire Galaxies.
Panta Rei. Everything in the Universe is constantly changing, sometimes imperceptibly, at other times with devastating effects. The Earth is part of the Universe and not immune from these constant changes, some of which are catastrophic. Some early life forms have been completely obliterated from the face of the Earth by cataclysmic changes. We know that dinosaurs once roamed all over this planet. They disappeared, almost at a stroke and we can only speculate about the catastrophic events that wiped that species out.
We also know that not that far from the epicentre of this earthquake, in 1883 another catastrophic event killed at least 36,000 people when Krakatoa exploded with the force of several hydrogen bombs, generating tidal waves of over 40 metres above sea level. Most of the losses of lives were the consequences of the tidal waves, not unlike in this recent disaster. Additionally unusual atmospheric changes were observed for several years as far as New York and beyond, and the volcanic dust responsible for these changes also acted as a solar radiation filter, lowering temperatures by as much as 1.2 degree C in the year after the eruption. Average temperatures did not return to normal until 1888.
What we now know about the movements of tectonic plates, this event of earthquake was predictable, albeit not for its size, precise location, or its effect and certainly not as to when it was going to happen. All US and Mexican citizens living over the St. Andreas fault are aware that earthquakes will occur at some unpredictable time in the future. Major earthquakes and tidal waves are as likely to occur over there – at one time or another - as it occurred now in Indonesia. We do not need Biblical prophecy to remind us of this probability. Is the US – a technologically advanced and prosperous country – any better prepared for this eventuality? And if and when it happens will those God fearing zealots, living further inland, jump up and down saying that this was God’s wrath visited upon the sinners? No doubt in an event like that many thousands of innocent children would perish, just like in this current disaster. Many thousands could be made orphans, just like in this current disaster. God’s wrath upon innocent children? What sense would that make in a Divine order, when we talk about a loving and caring God with the same breath?
In reality we humans, with all our sophistication and scientific knowledge, know very little. What we do not understand, what shakes us to our core, we tend to attribute either to God’s anger or try to shake it off by saying that life is not worth living, it is meaningless. Neither of those reactions – understandable as they maybe at times like this – are the right ones.
In the dedication to my book I quoted an old Jewish proverb, which says: “He who wants to live his life should equip himself with a heart which can stand suffering. Man must realise that life is sometimes good and sometimes bad. Only he is worthy of respect who is grateful for the good and knows how to bear evil.”
This disaster was most definitely not a punishment from God; it was nature’s way of preparing for renewal. Life has a meaning and so has death and both of those are jointly signs of constant renewal. Life most decidedly has a purpose, otherwise it would never have developed and humans would not have the capacity to see beyond the surface, to accept the constant changes on this planet and in the larger Universe and live a meaningful life, in the full knowledge that, although earthly life is finite, each and every one of us are a permanent part of a greater creation.
This – nature’s – disaster teaches us that with just a little goodwill we could rise above all dogmas, religious, political or otherwise and give a helping hand to those in need and those hit by a tragedy, rather than unleash another blow on humanity out of misguided convictions.
If we could learn a lasting lesson from this awesome calamity, if we could hang onto what we have learned and employ our skills and resources for the betterment and benefit of all mankind, we could then live on this planet in hope and harmony.
If we cannot learn, then we do not deserve a place in this Universe.
© P. J. Oszmann (December 2004)
I would like to draw your attention to an interesting and intelligent article about a Spiritual Response to Disaster by Sara Y. Rigler, which is online at the link below.