On 11 September 2001, the world came to a standstill as initial estimates put the death toll of the terrorist attacks on the east coast of the US in the tens of thousands. In the months afterwards, the figure kept being revised down, eventually settling at just under 3,000. In the case of the tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, precisely the opposite has happened: the day after the catastrophe, the BBC was reporting casualty figures in the low hundreds, that are now rising towards 200,000. The true figure may never be known but for several days the numbers became the story as the extraordinary scale of the disaster gradually revealed itself.
Ordinary people seem to have grasped this more quickly than governments, which have been engaged in a shameful game of catch-up. The British government's initial offer of £1m was increased to £15m, then £50m, as public donations to the disaster fund reached £60m. Predictably, the Bush administration did even worse; the President was enjoying a well-earned Christmas break at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and did not see any need to emerge for four days, while his initial promise of aid was a measly $15m. That amount has since risen to $35m, and $350m by the end of the first week, but the administration's response (or lack of it) is instructive.
If the deaths of nearly 3,000 people justify declaring a "war against terror", surely a disaster of this magnitude requires an even bigger response - nothing less than a "war against nature". For those of us who balked at declaring war on an abstract noun, nature is no more ridiculous an enemy, even if its resources - earthquakes, typhoons, epidemics - outgun the most determined terrorist. Osama, I cannot help thinking, would have to pull off something really spectacular to rival the destruction wrought by the Asian tsunamis or the terrible earthquake at Bam a year earlier.
It seems unlikely that President Bush and his closest ally, Tony Blair, will acknowledge the conclusion that must have struck any sensible person, which is that they have consistently over-estimated the threat from international terrorism. This is not to deny that the danger is real, but the numbers killed in terrorist outrages are nothing like as great as those attributable to natural disasters or other calamities of human origin, such as the genocide in Rwanda almost 11 years ago. Think what might have been achieved if the US, a famously stingy donor of overseas aid, had devoted a fraction of the billions it has spent on the war in Iraq to flood defences in developing countries - or an effective early-warning system.
Staff at the Pacific Tsunami Centre in Honolulu were aware of the underwater earthquake and sent a routine bulletin to 26 Pacific nations, announcing an "event" off the northern coast of Sumatra, only 15 minutes after it happened. What they did not know how to do was warn the countries most likely to be affected, as a bemused member of staff protested in a BBC interview. It was Boxing Day, they did not have phone numbers for the relevant governments and, to be fair, most embassies in the US would probably have had a skeleton staff on duty. This meant that warnings to move inland, which might have saved thousands of lives, were not issued as energy equivalent to the release of 10,000 Hiroshima bombs sent deadly waves towards defenceless inhabitants of a dozen countries.
It is hard not to draw several chilling conclusions from the international response to the disaster, one of which is the continuing existence of unconscious assumptions about the value of life in different parts of the world; a friend heard one of the big US TV networks announce that thousands were dead in a disaster in Asia, but no Americans had been killed. It is almost as though we expect people in developing countries to fall victim to natural disasters, donating generously to the relief effort, as we have seen in the last 10 days, but without the sense of outrage that was prompted by the 11 September suicide bombings.
I suspect that natural disasters are more difficult to deal with than terrorist attacks, for two reasons. There is no obvious culprit, no convenient figure like Osama or Saddam to blame - angry demands that Blair should have cut short his holiday in Egypt spring, I think, from the same impulse - and they are an unwelcome reminder of the frailty of human existence. Those of us who live in the developed world are used to thinking we have tamed nature, and such overwhelming evidence to the contrary rocks some of our most cherished assumptions. For some people, the tsunamis even seem to have shaken their faith in God, a response with which I have little sympathy, assuming it has previously survived his egregious failure to intervene in the Holocaust or smaller disasters such as Aberfan.
No amount of political rhetoric, no belated promises of international aid, can avoid the conclusion that we do not devote enough of our resources to protecting people in faraway countries against natural disasters. Nor can we deny that while President Bush has yet to declare war on nature, it periodically - and to devastating effect - declares war on us.Reuse content