Saturday, September 03, 2005

Katrina's wake

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, offers of aid have come in from other countries. Europe. Japan. Venezuela. Sri Lanka.

Someone in the State Department responded, essentially, thanks but no thanks. We can take care of ourselves. Then, the official response was more equivocating. The administration is considering the offers.

Venezuela and Sri Lanka?

In July, as I finished lunch in a food stall in Banda Aceh, I went to pay. Rice, dried fish, curry. A Coke. 10,000 rupiah. One dollar. Half for the lunch, half for the Coke.

The young man takes my money and asks me with his few words of English, Where from? IOM, I respond, giving the name of the relief organization I am working with. No, he tries to clarify, where from? The United States. He looks at me quizzically. America.

The young man smiles and extends his hand. My name Hassan. Abraham Lincoln. Thank you.

Banda Aceh was devastated by a tsunami last December. Approximately 40% of the 325,000 residents were killed, and like the residents of New Orleans, the survivors were left isolated without food or water.

Then, on the third day, the Americans arrived. First came the helicopters, arriving low over the horizon like Robert Duvall’s cavalry in Apocalypse Now. Then came the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and the Navy hospital ship Mercy and thousands of Marines and Navy seaman. Thousands of lives were saved. More important, however, there was hope.

The province of Aceh is governed under Islamic law. Under the Sharia’ rules, women wear veils in public, and the call to prayer echoes through the city five times a day. Abraham Lincoln. Mercy. These two names are the blessing given to Americans by Moslem strangers on the street. The Abraham Lincoln, the carrier where George Bush landed a year earlier to declare the end of the war in Iraq. But there is no irony in the voices of the Achenese. The Abraham Lincoln left the Persian Gulf and steamed across the Indian Ocean under full throttle to bring food and water and hope to a desperate people in their time of greatest need.

America today is the world’s hyperpower, to borrow the phrase from Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In the wake of the tsunami, only the U.S. military had the logistical capacity to respond to the needs of tsunami victims from Sri Lanka to Indonesia in those critical first days. But our actions there was not the reason why Hassan responded to the word America, they were a confirmation of what he already knew.

America exists on many levels in the world. America is how we conduct ourselves as a nation within the community of nations. America is how we act as individuals. But most important is what America means, and has meant for a century or more in the minds eye of individuals across the world. For Hassan in the food stall or for Evi, a veiled woman in my office whose eyes glowed as she lingered through a picture book of Philadelphia and murmured gently ‘oh, I wish I were there,’ America remains the City on the Hill, the vision less of what is than of what might be.

For Venezuela, the political rift between the Bush administration and Hugo Chavez is a transient matter––important perhaps, but transient––compared with the deep meaning of America to the generations of Venezuelans and others across Latin America who have sent their children here to school, who have migrated here and whose hopes for their own future will be measured against the notions of justice, freedom and opportunity that are America. For Venezuela Katrina is an occasion to say thank you.

For Sri Lanka, a small nation on the other side of the globe with few resources that can make a material impact on the reconstruction of New Orleans or the gulf coast, this is an opportunity to say thank you, in whatever small way they can, for what America has done for them in their time of tragedy. More important, it is a gesture of thanks for what America means. Hope, and the belief that the future can be better than the present.

Katrina has presented a rare moment of vulnerability in the face of nature’s wrath when others can reach out. And we must accept what they offer. It is not a matter of what we need, or what we can do without them. It is because we know, as demonstrated by the outpouring of private donations this week, as in the wake of the tsunami, that the power is in the giving.


Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful piece. JoeDworetzky

cwlovell said...

Indeed a wonderful piece. I hope this finds it's way into a broader public forum. Thanks David!

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. Important thinking. I'm forwarding it around. Keep it up, David! Pam Lovell Parker

Richard Moyer said...

We did a wonderful job with the Tsunami, but at home Bush is taking us back to the 19th century. The rich get richer and the poor are lucky to have a hot dog and a roof over their head. We do, however, seem to be interested in the sewer system in Bagdad. Bravo. We better hope that the Chinese keep buying our paper and that we don/t have a real estate collapse. We might weather a slowdown, but with the savings rate for last quarter at -03% we may be thankful if the economy just sputters along. David, your Blog is very astute and informative. Richard W. Moyer

Merrily Lovell said...

I enjoyed reading your beautifully written piece, David, and agreed with your sentiments. The mighty giant of America has been humbled by our own tragedy. It is more difficult for the powerful to receive than to give, but perhaps the humility of gratefully receiving even the smallest gift is as powerful as giving the largest gift.
Merrily Lovell

Becca said...

I thought you were going to ask why our military could get to Sri Lanka in three days, but not to New Orleans. Good piece. You should be sending these out.