Monday, December 4, 2006


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THE Christmas tsunami made the world shake, the United States roll up its sleeves, and the mind falter. The tidal wave produced by the Krakatoa eruption over a century ago was probably greater. But the population of the world has grown, especially in the tropical and sub-tropical belt that is most susceptible to volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and typhoons. Better warnings, stronger buildings, and improved emergency response will save tens of thousands of lives. But until science advances unimaginably, millions will continue to live at risk.

Early in the aftermath of the debacle, Jan Egeland, a United Nations bureaucrat, said that America's response had been "stingy." His comment was demolished like an empty fishing boat. Forty-five percent of Americans gave some individual contribution; their private donations alone totaled $1 billion. U.S. government aid came via carrier group with an efficiency that no other country, or international organization, could match. The presence of American soldier-Samaritans in sharia-ruled Sumatra offers one more lesson in the American character, and in American competence. Theft and waste will take their cuts; terrorists, one hopes, will fail to take their cuts through bogus charities. But all that can be done will be. That, generally speaking, seems to be America's job in the world order.

A word about President Bush, not to lecture him (his character is fixed), but to instruct future presidents. His initial estimate of what America might spend was ludicrously short. Bill Clinton might also have guessed wrong, but he would have shed a sympathetic tear. Our opinion of Mr. Clinton is well known. Still, it is a fact that the quick and emotional reaction has become part of the job description of the presidency. Bush's shortcomings in this area are related to different virtues he possesses--prudence, seriousness, a robust BS detector. They are still shortcomings.

But perhaps the president can be excused for reticence when religion does not know what to say. Evil is with us every day, in every illness and crime, and in our hearts; disasters gather it in one place. In Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams's meditation on the Middle Ages, he lists the anomalies that theologians like Saint Thomas Aquinas must somehow fit into God's plan. "[S]uffering, sorrow and death; plague, pestilence and famine; inundations, droughts and frosts; catastrophes worldwide and accidents in corners; cruelty, perversity, stupidity, uncertainty, insanity; virtue begetting vice; vice working for good; happiness without sense, selfishness without gain, misery without cause, and horrors undefined." Adams, who had lost a sister in a carriage accident and a wife to suicide, and who had lived through the Civil War, had seen suffering in every shape, and though he honored Aquinas, he accepted no easy answers.

God's answer to Job is that He made the Pleiades. Creation is better than the void; something is better than nothing. Jesus' answer, from the Cross, is that, whatever you suffer, I am there. Though answers, these are not explanations. All we can do is clean up the mess and try to do better. Believers among us will add their prayers.

COPYRIGHT 2005 National Review, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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