22 March 2011

Somebody Else's Problem?

At the gym yesterday I was subjected to some more enforced television viewing while I warmed up on the treadmill for a weight workout. This time, it was the news. Shootings, fires, other kinds of violence exemplifying the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality.

Plus a lengthy discussion of food and radiation. A lengthy discussion of the steps the US authorities are taking to make sure that food exports from Japan aren't radioactive.

And it went on, and on, and on, and on, with no reference to the people of Japan, those left alive to cope with this massive disaster, those many thousands who have perished and their hundreds of thousands of friends and family members.

I've been reminded a lot, in all this reporting about the earthquake and the tsunami and the aftermath, of the reporting of the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 -- an event far less catastrophic than what has struck Japan.

The most gruesome of images, played over and over, feeding and stoking an almost salacious interest in the tragedy, the tragedy of others. And lately the constant forwarding of videos of the tsunami with comments like "awesome" seems to me to structure this new tragedy as something that doesn't belong to us, that happened to a different people in a different place and now we can forget.

I was lucky, back on that sunlit day. I was a whole mile away from the towers, looked from a mile away at the airplane-sized hole in the north tower, watched from a mile away as a tower dropped to the ground. I was able to stay in my home as the city fell silent, as cars and buses vanished from the streets and planes and helicopters from the skies above. I did not have to walk miles to get home, as several friends and family members did, and I did not lose a loved one, as did numerous acquaintances.

Yet for months afterward, after the world was finished ogling the images of destruction and death and had moved on, the residents of lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn continued to breathe the smoke as the fire continued to burn. Nearly ten years later, a new tower finally rises at the site, but the gashes and scars in the earth -- and in the psyches of many victims of that tragedy -- remain.

Today the people of Japan have barely begun to cope with the disasters that tectonic plates and human greed have wrought. But America has moved on to worrying about our imported nori and fish and rice, completely oblivious and apparently indifferent to the years of pain and work it will take to rebuild homes and bodies and souls.