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After the Disaster, a Tidal Wave of Criticism
By Cathy Young | January 10, 2005
THE DEVASTATING IMAGES OF DEATH AND SUFFERING IN THE TSUNAMI-STRICKEN REGIONS OF ASIA STILL FILL OUR TELEVISION AND COMPUTER SCREENS AND THE FRONT PAGES OF OUR NEWSPAPERS. IT IS EASY TO FORGET THAT MASS MURDER AT THE HANDS OF "MOTHER NATURE" IS NOT AN UNUSUAL OCCURRENCE. IN BANGLADESH, CYCLONES KILLED ABOUT 300,000 PEOPLE IN 1970 AND SOME 140,000 AS RECENTLY AS 1991. IN CHINA, 250,000 DIED IN A 1975 EARTHQUAKE. TODAY, THE CHANGING NATURE OF THE MEDIA HAS MADE US MUCH MORE AWARE OF SUCH TRAGEDIES - INTERNET BLOGS HAVE PLAYED AN UNEXPECTEDLY PROMINENT ROLE IN THE COVERAGE AND THE FUND-RAISING - AND THAT'S ALL FOR THE GOOD.
Unfortunately, the changing nature of the media has also amplified the revolting spectacle of political gamesmanship in the midst of horrific tragedy.
The Bush administration's slow and inadequate initial response to the disaster - the allocation of a paltry $15 million to disaster relief (later raised to $35 million, then $350 million), the president's failure to speak out publicly or to return from his vacation in the first three days - was a proper target for criticism; not all such criticism equals "Bush-bashing," as some of the president's supporters seem to believe. But some did, in fact, jump at the opportunity to Bush-bash.
In the Los Angeles Times, columnist Margaret Carlson slammed Bush for taking a week to make a personal donation of $10,000 and noted that Secretary of State Colin Powell's involvement as a spokesman on this issue confirmed that "the president doesn't care about it." Democratic Party strategist Mary Ann Marsh went on television to charge that Bush was playing politics by sending his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, to the disaster area and by appointing former Presidents Bush and Clinton to head private fund-raising efforts. Marsh even suggested that Bush would use the success of private aid to promote Social Security privatization. In an all-time low, popular Washington, D.C., blogger Ann Marie Cox ("Wonkette") skewered Bush for being slower to respond to the tsunami than to last year's Florida hurricanes and concluded with this charming quip: "What's different about the Asia disaster? You know, a lot of white people died there, too."
There were other attempts on the left to use the tragedy to score ideological points: Some environmental groups, for instance, tried to blame industrial development in coastal regions for the scope of the destruction. But the right hardly covered itself in glory, either. On Fox News, talk show host Sean Hannity used the occasion to bash the Hollywood left and Republican bete noire George Soros, the liberal billionaire, for their alleged stinginess. If they did eventually give generous aid to the tsunami victims, Hannity sneered, it would be because they're "shamed into it." (Of course, that's exactly what some have said about the United States raising its contribution to disaster relief. Other conservatives went after their other favorite bete noire, France, for its initial official contribution of just $160,000 (raised to $57 million by now). Still others ripped into former President Clinton for supposedly taking a veiled swipe at Bush by saying on British TV that "it is really important that somebody take the lead in this." Actually, Clinton's comments were about the need to coordinate the international aid effort rather than spreading the responsibility around.
Meanwhile, controversy still swirls around the larger issue of whether the United States is generous enough to the world's poor. There is no question that, as a nation and as private individuals, we do much more around the world than we often get credit for. Even the justifiable criticism of the modest initial allotment of official disaster aid largely ignored the fact that the US government had also sent practical aid in the form of ships and helicopters.
At the same time, there is something unseemly about our touchy response to a UN official's recent criticism of "stingy" Western nations - criticism that did not specifically single out the United States - and about the vocal declarations that we are the most generous people in the world. By many measures, at least when it comes to foreign aid other than emergency disaster relief, we are not - even when you factor in private giving. Of course, private giving is notoriously difficult to quantify, or even to define: Should the assistance recent immigrants provide to their relatives in the home country count as American aid?
If nothing else, bragging about one's charitable deeds is in bad taste. One would do well to recall the Sermon on the Mount: "When you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do . . . so that they may be honored by men."
No one knows how many people around the world have made donations to the tsunami victims without trumpeting their good deeds. In those people, we have seen the best of human nature in the face of disaster. In the bickering and politicking, we see the worst.