Today's pity is worthless if we forget

Only time will tell if the tsunami remains on the list of never-forgotten definitive moments
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The 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz arrives in the middle of the tsunami calamity. Man's depravity and nature's pitilessness; past horrors and present terrors; historical memory and unfolding grief and mourning. How do we do the right thing, show respect to victims of both? We know so much more about the many modern tragedies that befall the world because the pictures come in almost as they happen. Most, however, soon fade away, retreat into a void, to make space for the next inevitable shock. Yet others refuse to wash away, to vacate the space, compelling us to promise to ensure nothing quite so terrible happens again.

The 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz arrives in the middle of the tsunami calamity. Man's depravity and nature's pitilessness; past horrors and present terrors; historical memory and unfolding grief and mourning. How do we do the right thing, show respect to victims of both? We know so much more about the many modern tragedies that befall the world because the pictures come in almost as they happen. Most, however, soon fade away, retreat into a void, to make space for the next inevitable shock. Yet others refuse to wash away, to vacate the space, compelling us to promise to ensure nothing quite so terrible happens again.

The Holocaust still stuns, it will forever. How was it possible for human beings, civilised Europeans, to plan, design, then execute mass murder on an industrial scale? By January 1945, millions had been tortured, starved, shot, burnt in ovens, obliterated. Wastage was kept low; human fat was made into soap, gold teeth pulled out and pocketed by the exterminators. Children were put through medical experiments, dead and alive, in the interests of science. No matter how many books you read on this period, the films you weep over, the images can bring forth fresh outrage and disbelief. When the story came through last week of a mother who had to decide to let go of one of her children when the giant waves hit, Sophie's Choice is what we all recalled.

The British response to the Asian disaster makes me tremble with awe and pride. Our people and the media have responded as truly expansive, global citizens, unlike during previous tragedies when the coverage and concern dwelt initially only on Britons. This time compassion quickly reached out to foreigners whose deaths usually don't count for much. "It is heartening," says the writer Blake Morrison, "that a developing world catastrophe should make it into the pantheon of Western mourning".

We found our young daughter, Leila, sobbing the other night after watching a victim on TV who wasn't even able to glance at his beautiful lover before she vanished into the waves. Leila is saving up for a huge trampoline, but has handed over £20 for the aid effort. All over the nation, in schools, roadside cafés, at stations, collections are being organised by people who could not even now point out some of the stricken places on a map. Sure, a few shrill individuals objected to the pressure to give and to observe silence. Best ignore them - egotism is an affliction and they can't help themselves.

But will this be an event that quickly passes, or one which has an indelible mark upon it? How do we decide? Only the Christmas before last, the Iranian city of Bam was razed by an earthquake killing nearly 60,000 people, many of them children. The rest still live in the ruins, broken- hearted and destitute, trying to raise the will to rebuild their lives slowly. Outside Iran, no one is interested. Of course there are no beach resorts in Bam, no bikinis, hotels, pleasure palaces. Is that why? Gujarat heaved on 26 January four years ago, burying tens of thousands, but outside India, they are now erased from international memory.

Or look back at the other abominations of history, some so recent they can't even properly be called historical, and tell me how we could have let those memories slip. I am making myself read Philip Short's book Pol Pot (John Murray, 2004) and, although I still have to get to the end, I cannot believe that a fifth of the population of Cambodia was wiped out in the Seventies, but their deaths do not figure in any collective commemoration. Outside Japan, the anguish of Hiroshima has evaporated as if it didn't happen. Pearl Harbour is unlikely ever to face such oblivion. The million-plus Ugandans massacred by Idi Amin and the previous president, Milton Obote, hardly mattered, but the victims of apartheid did, and do so today. Both were happening at roughly the same time and on the same continent. The barbarism of the Holocaust elbowed out the suffering and injustice imposed on Palestinians as their country was handed over to atone for the crimes of another continent. You can go mad making these comparisons and it can lead to a cold cynicism.

Choice is a dreadful burden, too. Providing help for the tsunami sufferers inevitably means we cannot be giving as much to the poor Africans in Darfur, who are being raped, dispossessed and slain, or to impoverished families decimated by Aids. The world does not need competition between victims. But sympathy is not limitless, and many of us are already feeling a vague, ghostly guilt that by directing so much attention towards the flood crisis, we are betraying others.

Then there is politics, the way the powerful can force mourning and memorialising while skilfully encouraging and managing collective amnesia when it suits. More than 3,000 innocent people lost their lives in the US in the al-Qa'ida attacks, an unforgivable act of brutality. But it was not the worst disaster ever. Yet it has been fetishised and used to authorise the most dangerous global policies we have seen. Charles Clarke, when he took over at the Home Office, said almost immediately that those attacks were unique and necessarily altered everything. So how many lives will need to be given to atone for this atrocity before it takes a more humble space there amongst all the others, whether they were caused by the vagaries of nature or the malevolence of humanity? These are not inquiries one should make, it seems. You get punished for such insubordination. Last November, I said that, although I had bought poppies, I was finding it impossible to wear them because in the same week that we were remembering our war dead, we were pounding Fallujah and its innocent inhabitants with bombs to punish that town and bring it down. It was an act of a small-time conscientious objector. It wasn't a campaign, nor a deliberate affront. It came out of a strong emotion that rituals to honour the soldiers who died long ago have not made us any more honourable when we go into needless wars today. But oh my - the torrent of abuse. The furious correspondence has tailed off, but obscene letters are still coming in every week, denouncing my lack of gratitude for those who gave their lives.

History is a construct, says a character in Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride (1993): "Any point of entry is possible and all choices are arbitrary. Still there are definitive moments, moments we use as references, because they break our sense of continuity, they change our direction of time. We can look at these events and we can say things were never the same again. They provide beginnings for us and endings too."

Few would disagree at the moment that both the Holocaust and the tsunami broke the world's sense of continuity and the direction of time. The first is firmly embedded in historical memory. Only time will tell if the latter will remain on the precious list of never-forgotten definitive moments. A year on, will we have left this behind? If so, our pity and concern will have been worth little and our present response will appear faithless and self-indulgent. And it will be left to aid agencies to carry on reminding us of our duties to recollect and act.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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