Waters Rage. We Are Afraid.

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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Catastrophe strikes each of us differently. The wise among us withhold judgment on our fellows’ first responses, knowing there is no right pathway through grief. (Those who lack such insight tend to end up in politics or the clergy.) And how do the grieving respond? Some lash out angrily. Some babble foolishly. Some sink into black pits of despair from which they may never reemerge.

Jewish tradition gives a name to the first wave of shock after a death and before burial. It is called aninut, something between numbness and desperation, when the mourner is exempted from normal rules of behavior and those around are counseled to keep silent.

Today we are all in aninut. We are all angry, we are all fools, for the earth itself has become our black pit, sending mountains of water crashing across continents and devastating nations in an instant. And those of us on the other side of the globe struggle to understand how to understand. Deep within, we congratulate ourselves for being alive, and then we feel foolish. How are we to behave?

There have been similar events in our lifetimes. An earthquake in Iran left 26,000 dead on December 26, 2003, one year almost to the hour before this tsunami. A quake in Turkey killed 17,000 people in an instant in 1999. An Iranian quake in 1990 killed 40,000; another in China in 1976 is said to have killed 255,000. The bomb that we dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 killed 140,000 just as instantaneously. We have seen this before. We have even done this ourselves.

And yet, in a way, we have not seen this before. For this is a disaster that will never be captured in a single picture that sears our memory — a mother weeping, a broken leg emerging from rubble, a naked girl fleeing — accompanied by a little map to explain what spot in our vast world was the site of the disaster. This time it is the map itself that tells the story, the one showing that quarter of our globe that has been reduced to ruin.

“The earth is transformed and the mountains collapse in the heart of the seas; waters rage and are muddied,” the Psalmist wrote. “Therefore, we shall not be afraid.”

But we are afraid. We are very afraid.

Those of us in the media, the ones charged with writing the first rough draft of history, find ourselves particularly baffled at moments like these, grappling with banal questions like which picture to put where. On Tuesday, as the magnitude of the disaster was becoming clear, The New York Times covered the top half of its front page with a photo of piles of dead children, and stories emerged at once from around the city of parents turning their morning papers upside down so that their children wouldn’t see. Nine-Eleven, it turns out, was easier to explain than this thing. You see, my child, we live on a ball of magma that cracks and explodes without notice. Now finish your cereal.

Across town, the tabloid New York Daily News and New York Post — owned respectively by those titans of pro-Israel journalistic integrity, Mortimer Zuckerman and Rudolph Murdoch — chose to feature cheesecake photos of a vacationing swimsuit model who had barely survived the disaster. The News put her on the front page. The Times had its tsunami babes, Zuckerman had his.

Sometimes the banal becomes the sublime. Israel’s papers led their papers with the news that 12 Israelis were believed to be among the dead. “Twelve Israelis, 100,000 others lost in tidal wave.” Comical? Or a heart-wrenching report on a missing family?

Sometimes the banal and sublime come together into the perverse. A journalist living in an Israeli settlement in the Golan Heights wrote a piece this week recalling the last great tidal wave that struck Indonesia, back in 1883, the one that inspired Norwegian painter Edvard Munch to create his masterpiece of human terror, “The Scream.” The painting, she noted, was stolen from its museum home last year by masked gunmen in Oslo. “Back here in Israel,” she concluded, “it seems that the masked gunmen of Oslo have managed to silence our screams” — by which she meant, of course, settler protests over the worldwide effort to bring peace to her region.

When the Forward was first launched in 1897, it was a daily newspaper that reported the news of the world in Yiddish. By the mid-1920s it had become one of the largest-circulation American dailies, with bureaus around the world. Two decades later it entered a long decline, because the market for Yiddish readers had been decimated, a byproduct of one of history’s greatest man-made catastrophes. Today we publish an English-language weekly, and every week we ask ourselves what it means to be a Jewish newspaper, and every week our readers phone in to ask what made a certain item a “Jewish story.”

Sometimes there is no answer except this: To be Jewish is to be human. To report the Jewish news is to report on the Jewish people’s contract with God and to note its weekly violations — by one party or the Other.

The Forward’s founders, believers all in the inevitability of science and human progress, would have been shocked by such talk. They might have pointed out, correctly, that this was a seismic event, a moving of tectonic plates under the Indian Ocean, requiring no mystical explanation of cosmic intentions. They would have noted angrily, too, that the Pacific Rim nations installed a tsunami warning system in the 1960s at U.S.-Japanese expense, but the impoverished nations surrounding the Bay of Bengal have no such device. Scientists in Alaska had an hour’s warning of Sunday’s disaster, but no one to relay it to.

Perhaps the Los Angeles Times said it best, in a Tuesday editorial apologizing for publishing a story on its front page about suburbanites lately seen moving downtown. It seemed foolish, the Times admitted, to speak of such things. And yet we are still alive. And we are still fools.






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