The biggest story of the year happened just as big-thinking journalists went on vacation after filing their “Ten Biggest Stories of 2004” pieces. Life has a way of surprising us.
I thought the other day of Harrison Salisbury, and his response when asked what he’d learned after a lifetime as a reporter. “Expect the unexpected,” he said. And of course we do, in the abstract, but when a story like this comes along in the particular, with maybe 80,000 dead, maybe more, we are aghast. And should be. Call it the force of nature or the hand of God or both; call it geological inevitability or the oldest story in the world (life is tragic) reasserting itself on a broader-than-usual level—however you see the earthquake and the tsunami, it reminds you that man is not in charge.
Of all the things I’ve heard said of the great horror, nothing seemed to me to sum it up as well as a woman chatting with a man as he cut her hair in New York. The TV was on, CNN. They stopped and watched the latest video of surging waves crashing through a hotel. The man sighed and shook his head. “Life is terrible,” he said. The woman said, “Oh it’s beautiful, beautiful, but full of pain.”
* * *
“Did you hear about the baby they found floating on a mattress?” “Did you hear about the 2-year-old Swedish kid they found wandering down a street?” “Did you hear about the guys who floated on a refrigerator?” Did you hear about the model, the surfer, the snorkelers?
People are fascinated by these stories, and so am I. It’s a little like the first days after 9/11 in New York: “Did you hear about the guy in the wheelchair on the 91st floor?” Soon we will be hearing about massive relief efforts and individual acts of heroism and sacrifice, and those stories will be a relief, and maybe even in some cases an inspiration.
Not everyone distinguished himself. What to say of those who’ve latched on to the tragedy to promote their political agendas, from the U.N. official who raced to call the U.S. “stingy,” to the global-warming crowd, to administration critics who jumped at the chance to call the president insensitive because he was vacationing in Texas and didn’t voice his sympathy quickly enough? Such people are slyly asserting their own, higher sensitivity and getting credit for it, which is odd because what they’re actually doing is using dead people to make cheap points.
On the other hand, there were moments of true excellence in those who reported on, witnessed, and responded to the tragedy, from the groups sending food and medicine to those rushing to the disaster scene to help. The cable news networks distinguished themselves, and CNN in particular has been fabulous, wall to wall. News ennobles them. When there’s no news CNN is endless chatter, tacky as cheap sets. Then news comes and they are reminded of why they exist: to tell us what’s happening, to get the newest and latest. It’s as if the anchors sit straighter, knowing they do have a purpose beyond being the aural screen saver on our TV.
* * *
The other night at dinner a friend wondered aloud if this almost-world-wide tragedy would have an impact on peace. Would it remind us of all we have in common, and how precious life is? This reminded me of something Ronald Reagan used to say of all the conflicts in the world. He’d say that if the world were attacked by Martians tomorrow, we’d all come together, and it’s too bad we couldn’t manage to cut to the chase. This used to be taken as an example of his idiocy, but of course it’s true. We would all drop our local and ancestral hatreds to fight shoulder to shoulder against the common foe. Years later, in true Reaganesque style, Hollywood produced the blockbuster “Independence Day,” in which extraterrestrials attacked the earth and the world united in resistance.
(In a similar spirit, let me say that if Steven Spielberg went to the Mideast tomorrow, announced he was making a movie, and sent out a casting call for males age 12 to 30 he would immediately establish a new Mideast peace, at least for the length of the shoot. Because the only thing the young men there would rather do than kill each other is be a movie star. Hmmmm, a suicide bombing that raises my family’s status in the neighborhood or a possible date with Cameron Diaz, let’s see . . . Mr. Spielberg would also get a Nobel Peace Prize. I am actually not kidding.)
The biggest story of 2004 has come, has not yet gone, and will be with us for some time. Two thousand five begins on Saturday. For the new year, two thoughts. Remember it can all be swept away in a moment, so hold it close and love it while you’ve got it. And may we begin 2005 pondering how much we have in common, how down-to-the-bone the same we are, and how the enemy is not the guy across the fence but the tragedy of life. We should try to make it better. We should cut to the chase.