Finding Solidarity in Disaster

It’s an apple-cheeked truism often quoted by perky people looking to cheer someone up: “”When you smile, the whole world smiles with you, but when you cry, you cry alone.””

Patrick Leung

Such is clearly not the case for America. Over the past weeks, the “”whole world”” is sharing in our tragedy. The leaders of nearly every nation in the world have expressed their condolences for the events of Sept. 11. Indeed, the citizens of many nations are grieving with the same intensity as Americans, as if international borders matter little when people are faced with such devastating and pointless loss of life.

One would like to think that is actually the case.

Unfortunately, such politics-free concern for the well-being of others rarely materializes among Americans these days. Our country’s persistent strain of isolationism has long led us to ignore many of the troubles of the rest of the world. Or, when we do get involved, we are guided more by political and economic aims than by a nationality-blind desire to assist people in need.

With all the instability in countries and regions all over the world, it is more important than ever that Americans pay attention to humanitarian disasters, and that we not only lend our sympathy and empathy, but also our help. This, to be truly effective, must be done without regard to political concerns.

Instead, our care and assistance should come from a deep respect for the intrinsic value of human life. This is something in which Americans are rich when it comes to our friends and neighbors, but which must be extended indefinitely to include everyone on this lonely blue and green island.

Every year, countries are hit hard by natural disasters: earthquakes in Turkey, mudslides in Latin America and flooding in India being some recent examples. Federal organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and private donors are quick to send money and supplies to help ailing countries, which are often not developed enough to provide for adequate disaster relief on their own.

Of course, to say that American attention toward such disasters is minuscule compared to the international outpouring of love and support we have received in the last three weeks would be quite an understatement indeed. Few Americans give to organizations designed to help, and few feel a personal loss over those thousands of deaths, perhaps because they seem very far, indeed, from their own backyard. This attitude — that the only issues deserving of attention are those that directly influence us — is at the root of our unwillingness to make extra effort to assist those in need in far-off countries.

The issue is further complicated in situations where it is not an act of God, but political situations that create humanitarian crises. The U.S. government often finds itself torn about how to use its power and influence on the international scene. On the one hand, some argue we must promote democracy and place sanctions on nations with bad human rights records or despotic leaders. Others point out that sanctions do little to change these situations for the better, and instead demonize the countries imposing them and lead to even worse conditions.

In such debates, the desire for friendly governments wins out over humanitarian concerns. Americans would do well to re-evaluate this stance and consider the impact our decisions have on actual quality of life for people living in the countries we deny supplies and goods.

The past few years have also seen growing populations of refugees, as is now the case in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The United Nations has estimated that the cost of aiding these refugees — who have fled their homes believing that American bombs will soon fall over them — will total over $600 million. Where is the fund for donations toward this effort? Is American reticence toward assisting all people negatively affected by the acts of violent extremists due to indifference? That cannot be true, because Americans have shown themselves to be generous in giving to the relief efforts on our own soil. This generosity must be extended outside our borders.

Maybe it’s idealistic and naive to suggest that we should give of our great bounty to help all people in need, whether they’re citizens of nations with which we agree or disagree, nations that are our allies or our enemies.

But whether it’s possible or not, it should be something to which we aspire. To show the same respect to value of human life no matter race, religion, creed, ideology or nationality — isn’t that one of the central tenets of our culture? In fact, it’s a major part of what makes America a great country.

We Americans have so much, and perhaps the thing we take most for granted is our security that we will not be stricken with overwhelming famine or an insurmountable natural disaster — after all, even in New York, the quality of the engineering behind the World Trade Center held each of the towers steady for nearly an hour after the planes’ respective impacts, allowing thousands to escape from the lower floors. And now, in the wake of the domestic disaster, our hospitals have the technology, supplies and staff to treat the injured; our infrastructure is strong enough to provide the services that will piece that city, and our nation, back together.

To take that for granted, to forget that the vast majority of people in the world do not have these luxuries and securities, would be a gross injustice to those people, and to ourselves.

Don’t misinterpret this — this is not a call for Americans to renounce the capitalist lifestyle we so enjoy, to sell our sport utility vehicles and fine homes and jewelry and designer clothing and send all but what we need to those at the other end of the wealth spectrum. Such a course of action is for few, and those who follow it are hailed as saints but little imitated in the West.

Instead, let us begin where we can, where we are comfortable. Americans have selflessly donated money and clothing and time to help the disaster relief in New York. What if the giving continues after the rubble is cleared on the home front?

We can help; that much is clear. Now all that is wanting is our commitment. Americans have been inspired to reach into their hearts and give condolences to the families of those affected by the attacks; we have reached into our pockets to give much-needed financial support. We have discovered the satisfaction that comes from knowing that our energies are going toward something constructive and positive. That satisfaction doesn’t have to stop.

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