During a conversation with a friend soon after September 11, 2001, I compared the al-Qaeda attacks to a major natural disaster. The difference, I said, was our collective reaction. Suppose a tremendous earthquake had toppled the World Trade Center. The destruction would have been widespread, with thousands more people killed. Would there still be this angry, vengeful response which had already begun to grip the country?
My point was lost, however, because equating the 9/11 attacks with a natural disaster evoked its own kind of angry response. After all, other people did this to us. Our anger and thirst for vengeance were justifiable.
There is an old Zen story where a man is fishing from his boat on a fogbound lake. Through the mist he senses another boat coming directly at him. The startled fisherman shouts an angry warning. As the oncoming boat strikes, the fisherman curses the other. Quickly, the mist clears and the fisherman realizes the boat that rammed him is empty and adrift. Embarrassment replaces his anger.
Why is it that when other people, rather than nature, are the cause of our misfortune our reaction is different? I think it’s because, first, we believe other people should know better (as we always know better). Second, even though we can mitigate the effects of nature to some extent, we can and should control the actions of those human beings who would thwart, threaten, or harm us. Third, if we can’t control the actions of those who would thwart, threaten, or harm us, then we can justify doing whatever necessary to deter, punish, or avenge. And of course, somebody must pay.
Religious beliefs entwine natural events with references to acts of God. We like to know why bad things happen. If the cause isn’t human, then it must be divine. If the cause is divine, then who are we to question? Historically and psychologically, God provides a needed explanation for the otherwise inexplicable and helps make tragic natural events easier to bear. Religion tangles things further when disasters become for us God’s judgment and retribution for things other people do, justifying one group’s destructive acts against another.
It’s ironic how easily so many of us accept natural disasters as God’s judgement on others, but when science tells us the progressively worsening changes in our global climate are the result of human activity, many of those same people deny it’s happening and call it a hoax.
Regardless, we humans and our descendants will have to live with and adapt to whatever climatic changes come our way. Ten, twenty-five, 100 years from now, no one will care that Al Gore was right and Rush Limbaugh was wrong about global warming any more than we care today that Galileo was right and the Church was wrong about heliocentrism.
Over eons of time, earth’s climate has changed in many inhospitable ways. The world has seen massive earthquakes, floods, droughts, tornadoes, and volcanic eruptions. But these events never matter unless humans are in the picture. It’s all about us, isn’t it? We humans are right in the middle of this swirling ocean of change that goes on and on. We are part of it, and we have adapted. So far.
Political and social change are as inevitable as changes in weather and climate. Societies manage themselves by creating governments, religious institutions, and other social structures, but over time these have and will change as we continually adapt to new circumstances and conditions. Social and political development and evolution are unstoppable. People do what they will to control their environment, survive, and—if possible—prosper. Sometimes what we humans do in the name of control, survival, and prosperity is grand and life-affirming. Other times it cruel and inhumane. It’s always been like this. It’s the nature of who we are and what we do.
When I told my friend my thoughts about the 9/11 attacks being no different from a natural disaster, this is what I had in mind. As individuals, the hijackers committed a singularly evil and unjustifiable act of violence. But it was just another tragic event in a very long list of examples of man’s inhumanity to man that has been part of the cycle of life and death on earth for thousands of years. Eventually, what happened on September 11, 2001, will have all the emotional impact as the events at the Alamo. Remember the Alamo?
Had we been more vigilant (and we could have been), we may have prevented or lessened damage of the events of 9/11. But there are some things we cannot prevent. We can’t prevent droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, or arctic meltdown. We can’t always prevent other people from doing us harm (remembering that we are “the other” to someone else). We cannot prevent change, we can only live with it.
Hurricane Sandy pounds the eastern United States, and its powerful effects will be far-reaching. People are doing what they can to protect themselves and their property. Some will fare better than others, depending on many unpredictable factors. When it’s over, some will celebrate their good fortune of surviving another massive and destructive natural disaster, others will curse their misfortune and mourn their losses. Either way, as a country, we will clean up and carry on.
Yet another hurricane awaits off shore. When it strikes, it will rake the entire country. Unlike Sandy, this hurricane, which has been brewing for many years, is entirely human-caused. But like any hurricane it is unstoppable. We’ll have better information about areas of damage by November 7. When the skies clear, some of us will celebrate survival-as-victory, others of us will react with grief and anger at our misfortune. I hope the damage is manageable and that the inevitable post-disaster pillaging and plundering are minimal.
Some interesting things I found when researching this essay are here: