How do you get your head around the unimaginable?
When I moved from Boston to Los Angeles, I used to spend a great deal of time thinking about earthquakes. In order to live here, you come to believe that the Earth can be tamed. Before denial, there is rationalization. We pack our tidy earthquake kits in our trunks, water and blankets, running shoes for the glass that will be broken, slippers under our beds, emergency numbers and out-of-state contacts. We have rules and regulations, codes and inspections. We convince ourselves that we are as safe as people can be. Will it protect us? Maybe.
I look at the countries on the map that have been most affected by the horror. I have never been to any of them. I did not know what they were like before. I cannot imagine them now. The idea of little orange earthquake kits protecting them against what they faced seems laughable, silly, ridiculous.
The world is shrinking, for my children. My son stays up at night and plays videogames with people in Asia. His RPGs require no common language. He went to Europe when he was three and is on my case about Asia. By the time he and his sister are my age, God willing, they will speak many languages _ they will have traveled the world the way I have this country, shopped in these markets, swum at these beaches, laughed with these people, walked these roads. They will recognize the devastation, I hope, in ways that I cannot.
Americans are not stingy, as U.N. officials suggested at first. Our reaction, especially at this holiday season, has been immediate and generous, and heartfelt. But in an age when the easiest story for the media to cover is one they can drive to, when most of us have the attention spans of gnats, when the staple of entertainment television is what we can disagree about, not what we can only hope to adequately come together to mourn, the challenge for those who would present this story is to find ways to do more than barrage us with the body count until we can only turn away.
I used to be jealous of those people who went to exotic places on vacation. Imagine going to the beach in Thailand, I'd think to myself. I'd be happy to go to Hawaii. Thrilled.
Four Seasons stock is down. Tourism will be hurt. For a while, anyway. That's the least of it. Tens and tens of billions of dollars for the poorest of the poor. Where will the will come from? From the AIDS babies of Africa, or the orphans? How much misery can we imagine?
Around the world, mothers are looking for children. How many were dying as yours and mine were complaining, just a little bit, about whether this year's holiday gifts were just what they wanted? In Sumatra, the western-most province of Indonesia, the bodies are rotting before the mothers can get to identify them. So they carry pictures to see if anyone has seen their children.
We tell ourselves that our buildings are better, stronger. Not as much ocean. We're safer. Better protected against disease. All true.
We're lucky _ the luckiest people on the face of the globe, as tragedies like this remind us. Which is why it is so painful to look. We need heroes, which is why movies about the Holocaust need an Oskar Schindler, and movies about Rwanda need a Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who saved 1,200 people from genocide.
There is, at this time of year, an easy answer to that. We can be them. Happy New Year.
Susan Estrich is a syndicated columnist and a law professor at the University of Southern California.