Reflections on the Tidal Waves

The day after Christmas, Boxing Day – and suddenly the Earth moves violently just off the coast of Sumatra, giant tidal waves spread in all directions, and death and destruction are wreaked on all coastlines bordering the eastern Indian Ocean, with the toll of dead now up above 40,000. What more is there to say about such a devastating disaster – besides belated speculation about extending the tsunami early-warning system in the Pacific to cover the Indian Ocean as well?

Oh, you can be sure that there is more to say out there among the world’s commentariat. The question is rather whether there are further insights worth reading, but I think Bart Sturtewagen does a good job along this line, writing in Belgium’s De Standaard, with his commentary piece Metaphor for Fleetingness.

To start with, I’m struck by his label of the event as “the disaster by which in the shortest time the most damage was inflicted on the greatest area.” And indeed, places thousands of miles away from each other were hit by the wall of water at roughly the same time. But that’s not to say that at least the notion of this sort of instant, widespread destruction was completely unknown. Rather, that sort of thing has loomed over us all ever since the dawn of the automatic age, especially with the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. It in fact looms over us still, an ever-present threat only somewhat mitigated in recent times by the end of the Cold War and the resulting lowering of political tension with the main atomic rival, Russia. (We also shouldn’t forget to give credit to those countries, like the Ukraine, South Africa, and lately Libya, which voluntarily took themselves out of the business of owning or developing nuclear arms. But these are offset by others straining to join the club, such as North Korea and Iran.)


To this point, then, Sturtewagen has at least set out in stark, if not unique, terms what hit that part of the world bordering the eastern Indian Ocean on Sunday. And then it doesn’t take long for him to go on and pin-point what it was that made the disaster so unique, namely the setting. Any atomic holocaust would presumably be preceded (as in October, 1962) by a build-up of tension and dread; in contrast, Sunday’s tidal waves occurred on what generally seemed a peaceful, sunny day everywhere in the affected areas. Many of those areas were in fact tourist get-aways for Westerners seeking to escape winter temperatures. As Sturtewagen puts it, “You’re there in an all-in resort, in your bathing suit, looking at the blue sky and the mother-of-pearl sea, and then you disappear in the swirling waves. After which peace returns and the sun shines even more brightly, but now upon unimaginable devastation.” This is a bit like the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the sheer horror of that day’s attacks was accentuated by the bright, sunny, late-summer sort of day that Tuesday was, the last sort of day when you would expect something like that to happen. And, as this report describes, many lost their lives precisely because, rather being aware of what was coming, they were fascinated by the strange behavior of the sea that they were witnessing right in front of their eyes.

But happen it did on Sunday, something that furthermore could happen yet again and for no reason, just as it happened on Sunday for no apparent reason – people swept out to sea to drown like rag-dolls, buildings smashed like they were houses of cards. As Sturtewagen puts it, “You almost would like it to have been some sort of punishment, because that would at least imply that we have some sort of grip on our fate.” But how can that be true when the disaster claimed so many lives of the truly innocent, of the Third World poor?

Dwelling on questions such as these for too long can bring one far too close to profound and even despairing questions of deeper meaning and philosophy. Instead, life goes on. Analysts dispassionately deliver their estimates of the likely damage to the Asian tourist industry; travel agencies hastily re-book customers to other tropical destinations; and national western medias all-too-often shamefully concentrate on the fates of countrymen caught on vacation in the affected areas rather than the locals who were the overwhelming majority of the victims. What remains in the back of our minds, a memento mori that won’t go away, is the vluchtigheid, the fleetingness of the very existences of each and every one of us.

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