Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mining the Disaster for an Important Lesson

Like millions of people around the world, I followed the effort to rescue the 33 miners trapped below ground in Chile, and I rejoiced in their rescue. Talk about teamwork -- drilling crews came from near and far with the best technology available. NASA contributed knowledge gleaned from the space program to promote the physical and mental health of the men both before and during the rescue -- men who faced a life-threatening situation through no fault of their own.

It was a modern, global version of neighbors helping neighbors put up the barn on the family farm.

Tragedies can and do (sometimes) bring people together in noble ventures. But not always.

Remember Hurricane Katrina? More than 1,400 people were killed; more than 200,000 homes were lost. The government response was tepid and incompetent -- not surprising under the "leadership" of President George W. Bush, but nevertheless "unAmerican" in its lack of caring for fellow citizens. We didn't help rebuild the "barn" in any organized sense of the word. We didn't tax ourselves to provide the resources required to generate the massive rebuilding effort that would have been worthy of the term "community." No, what resources we did expend we borrowed from the next generation, so we wouldn't have to burden ourselves with higher taxes. And more than five years later, the wounds are still inescapable.

According to the Los Angeles Times (10/19/10), more than 21 children have died so far in 2010 at the hands of the County foster family "system" -- adding to the 26 tragic deaths in 2009 and 18 in 2008. (That's if you believe the "system" is reporting accurately.) Small numbers, perhaps, by comparison with the number of children served, and not entirely the fault of lack of resources, as the primacy of "family unification" seems to be playing a role (at the expense of the children). Nevertheless, can we truly say we have successfully addressed the plight of those who, through no fault of their own, face life-threatening situations? I think not.

Why is it that we sometimes respond to tragedy in a helpful, resourceful, and generous fashion, and other times we circle the wagons? I suspect it has to do with the perceived magnitude of the problem and the degree of sacrifice required to undertake a meaningful response.

Did it really require sacrifice for us to "care" about the 33 miners trapped in Chile? To the best of my knowledge, no American risked his life for the cause. It didn't cost anyone a cent. All we had to do was watch TV, read the paper, and hope that things would turn out OK.

In contrast, many of our other problems are both massive and personal. They are not easily resolved. They overwhelm the ability of the organism to respond in a manner that seems helpful but is not excessively painful, either psychologically or financially. They require time, effort, and resources -- in short, sacrifice. And that doesn't seem like something most Americans are prepared to do anymore.

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