Deborah Orr: The paradox of human suffering

No matter the devastation, there comes a point when people want to look on the bright side
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The Independent Online

In this year of cataclysm, it has become all too easy to recognise the pattern of information that mass death and maiming dictates. Early on, there is a period of incomprehension, a moment of paralysis during which there is only an abstract understanding of what has occurred. An earthquake, a tsunami, a terrorist attack, a famine, a massacre, a flood, a storm, a fire... The barest facts are before us, or at least are trickling ineffably through, but the desire to minimise the bad news overwhelms the dictates of common sense.

The earthquake in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan on Saturday was being reported all through the weekend. But it is not until now that a real understanding of what has gone on is coming together. In the face of such damage, of course, there is sheer inertia, alongside the practical difficulties faced when disaster strikes poor, crowded or remote areas. But there is also a period of wilful stillness from the spectators around the world, as if refusal to acknowledge the full extent of the damage will somehow be a bolster against it.

For a full day after the tsunami struck last Christmas, there was talk of 300 deaths in Thailand, and of one British fatality, maybe two. For hours after three trains and one bus suddenly and simultaneously exploded in London, the population of the capital clung firmly to the silliness of an "electrical fault". For months beyond the warnings of coming famine in Niger, the world carried on as if this may not happen, as it has with famines so many times that lessons ought to have been thoroughly learned.

Then, a hysterical brand of reality rushes in, filling the still pool of paralysis with a writhing, screaming tumult of stories that leave us slack-mouthed with the nightmare of it all. The aftermath of the hurricane in New Orleans was the most awful example of all, because the need and the chaos struck in a place and time of plenty, and suddenly the world saw how much more destabilising than mere poverty wealth inequalities really were.

This awful time usually inspires a sudden, shocking, irresponsible need to inflate the most awful of horrors with estimates of the dead and the injured that actually outdo the dreadful-enough reality. In this phase of the story, the horror transfixes, and stories of little orphans who have lost scores of close relatives, and mad-eyed mothers clinging to their dead babies, abound.

Often, it is easy to see how such mistaken estimates occur. In the aftermath of the atrocities of 9/11, death tolls were being quoted at three or four times the eventual number, because there was an assumption that everyone who worked in the building, would have been in it during those incomprehensible moments. Likewise, in the wake of Hurricane Rita.

At other times, though, and when human nature is at its least empathetic, it is clear that the overestimates are sociopathic, born out of a disconnected excitement at the awful scenes, and a scary-movie desire for the horror to keep on mounting. It's at this point, though, that revulsion as well becomes too much. No matter how terrible the devastation, there comes a point - usually when a baby is discovered alive long after its survival would count as a miracle - when people want to start looking on the bright side.

Finally, the human interest stories take shape, as the living and the mourning emerge from their shock or their illness enough to give eyewitness accounts. Ultimately, when single human faces emerge from the disaster and are hailed as somehow embodying it, the face is not of death but survival - beautiful Davinia Turrell is literally unveiled as the woman behind the surgical-dressing mask after the London Tube bombings, plucky Ali Abbas is pictured grinning and merry as he stretches out his prosthetic limbs after the Iraq War, or Birhan Woldu is led on stage by Madonna, to be hailed by Bob Geldof as the face of famine survival and, of course, most importantly, "a bu-u-diful woo-ma-an".

Last, but not least, comes the political fallout. Here, sadly, the drive never really appears to be towards change. Instead, there is simply a need for blame-dumping. Will the Foreign Office perform any better the next time the bloated remains of British citizens wait to be identified in tropical heat? Will George Bush have a sudden revelation about the how divisive his economic policy is, post New Orleans? Will the corrupt local government that repaired the city's levees with cheap concrete emerge as the inspiration for a sea change in local corruption around the globe and change their ways? Will a new system of funding disaster be inaugurated, whereby the money is waiting in UN coffers for the next emergency, rather than being drummed up in pledges once there are bodies to count? Will there be a move towards pursuing conviction under Britain's new corporate manslaughter laws?

The answer to each of these - possibly a bit, probably not much - says a lot about how tiny the human machinations called politics are, in the face of the epic story of human survival in an indifferent universe.

And maybe, just maybe, that is the way we prefer it. The stories we tell ourselves and each other about a huge disaster, couched in terms that allow us to engage, at first reluctantly then passionately and then to select a positive image that offers personal and self-absorbed closure, are stories designed to help us to survive the cruel randomness of vulnerable human existence.

But when we enter the public and political realm, what we crave is a different story, a mirror-image tale whereby a trifling mistake or misdemeanour can be writ large as somehow significant, somehow disastrous, somehow a piece of godlike fury or poetic justice, hubris punished or arrogance crushed.

It's funny, of course, that yesterday's papers were full of David Blunkett's assertions that people ought to switch off their tellies and get down to some work. With yet another infotainment show about his affair with Kimberly Quinn on air last night, well, "he would, wouldn't he".

Yet, in the gulf between our endless, endlessly justified, fascination with - for example - this lonely man's love life, or with the private lives of politicians more generally, and our self-protective arc of containment against the dead and dying strangers of the world's continents, lies part of the reason why people are so shoddy in our efforts at international cohesion, or understanding.

Human suffering is either so horribly vast that people cannot face the fact it is being inflicted, or so tiny and absurd that people cannot resist watching - at the least - as it is inflicted. The planet's deepening paradox is that as the need for global political leadership grows more urgent, the very concept of such leadership becomes more farcical.