by Tom Armstrong, www.zenunbound.com, Jan 8, 2005
San Francisco, USA -- I remember an episode of Star Trek where a planet exploded. Kirk and Bones expressed concern for the vast multitude of lives that were lost and then looked at always-logical Mr. Spock with a smerk of disgust, expecting that the dimensions of the disaster could not touch his cold heart. But Spock was brought down to his knees, wailing with pain, touched by the enormity of the suffering. It was alien Spock, not humans Kirk and Bones, that felt the disaster.
I remember when the first news of the tsunami was reported. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths, we were told. The news was sketchy; but we knew this was a big story -- "breaking, ongoing and in development" as the news providers say.
The stories came in quick succession. And one could seem to tell which story was freshest, with breaking information, by the toll that was there in the headline or in the openning sentence. Perhaps 10,000 dead; 22,000 feared killed; "Death toll reaches 44,000."
There is something troubling about journalists and about humans' hearts. Journalists, always want to be ahead of or at the edge of a story. Humans are always excited with drama. Journalists make their mark by going into battlefields and travelling to remote places where big stories are unfolding. Journalists get ahead in their profession by risking their own lives or visiting hardships on themselves. Humans like fiction or sports or video games where the characters/players are challenged by immanent threat of death (or pseudo-death); it gets our blood racing; our adrenaline pumping. We admire heroism and courage and daring-do. We feel pride if a relative died heroically.
44,000 dead so far? My, that's a large number. This is a disaster that will make it into the almanac. This is a disaster that will be remembered. This is a disaster that I can tell my children and grandchildren about. I'll be able to remember this event. It is up there with the Kennedy assassination or 911 -- something years from now, we will all sit around a restaurant table and recall together, who we were and what we were doing then, in those dark days.
It felt like Barry Bonds chasing the homerun record. Can we admit it to ourself? that in our dark heart of hearts there was a thrill as the toll grew; as the number increased; as the amateur videos were played again and again on the TV news? Wow, look at that wave devouring the beach and flooding the village. Look at those ant-like people being overtaken. It's Godzilla walking the streets of Tokyo. It's Doc Ock terrorizing New York.
What was it about Barry Bonds going after the homerun record that was so enthralling? Why is it that a new benchmark grabs our attention? Is it the sense of "history in the making?" But why should a new record make something worthy? Is it just because we know that people in the future will know of it? How weird our sense of excitement is.
A few days after the tsunami, on the News Hour on PBS, when 44,000 was the count, aid-organization executives were in a discussion led by Gwen Ifill. One of the these discussants said, boldly, that the toll would reach 100,000. Of course, this was an obvious milestone that was out there: The number of deaths would reach the covetted six-digit figure. The disaster would "jump up," somehow, and be more significant than it was before. It would be like the moment a person turns 21. Or when an olive measures just a tiny bit bigger and is branded "colossal" instead of mere "jumbo."
A day later, the comparison with the bombing at Hiroshima came up on CNN news reports. By golly, the tsunami would take more lives than that famous first nuclear blast. This disaster was indeed world class.
Soon, there were American and British TV journalists in Thailand and Sri Lanka and Indonesia, in their chinos and short-sleeved blue oxford shirts, wading in where the devestation was, where the people were suffering. Certainly, these reports got the First World public viewers closer to what was going on, and made more-human the suffering of the amorphous multitude we were hearing about. But there was certainly something strange about the encounters between journalists and those suffering.
The eeriest encounter I saw was between Brian Williams, the new anchor of NBC Evening News, broadcasting from Indonesia, and a man sitting at a table with what was left of his family. The man had lost relatives and all his possessions. Williams, in a voiceover says [something like], "and then comes the common question ..." The Indonesian man, after having answered several questions about his status, asks -- begs really -- Williams for something that he personally could do to help he and his suffering family. Then, the report segues to commentary on the destruction and suffering seen everywhere and the zombie-like contenence of many of the Indonesians. Williams is standing there, in the midst of this scene, a microphone up to his lips. Williams, that lucky duck, has just replaced Tom Brokaw on the show, getting a contract paying him many millions. The Indonesian man has nothing. What is going on here!?
Today, January 7, 2005, the count of dead is 150,000 -- but there is new excitement because it is estimated that another 150,000 may die of disease brought on by the tsunami. The story is getting ever bigger. Baby, baby, can you hear your heart race.