May 14th, 2008

Disasters and “the forgetting”

[This is a slightly edited version of a piece that I wrote very early in my blogging career about the tsunami of January 2005. It occurred to me to reprint it in light of the horrific earthquake in China.]

We hardly hear about the tsunami anymore, although for a while it dominated the news. The tsunami was videotaped in a staggering variety of manifestations: from the tall towering waves of Japanese art, to rolling swells that almost resembled a normal tide coming in—except for the fact that this particular tide just kept coming and coming and coming. We viewed forlorn beaches where villages had once stood, and saw keening mourners whose anguish was almost unbearable to watch even on the small screen.

Over and over, newspeople, relief workers, politicians, and officials declared this to be an unprecedented catastrophe. But in the annals of history there have been far greater catastrophes (at least in terms of number of deaths), and many of them have been almost utterly forgotten—although some of these have actually occurred relatively recently.

Why did this particular tragedy grip us so—at least, for a while—and why have so many of the others been forgotten, or nearly forgotten?

Only those of a certain age might remember the massive 1970 floods in Bangladesh which killed 300,000 people (see here). An earthquake in the city of Tianjin in China in 1976, in the bad old days when almost no news emerged from that country, was reported to have killed at least 255,000, and more likely 655,000. How many of us have even heard of the city, much less the earthquake? Those with longer memories than I might even recall the flooding of the Yangtze in 1931 that caused at least three million deaths–and this was in a time when the world’s population was far smaller than it is today.

Stranger still is the lack of common knowledge about the 1918-9 influenza epidemic that disrupted most of the world (with the exception of Africa and South America) at the same time WWI was ravaging Western Europe. It was an event medieval or even Biblical in its apocalyptic scope. How many people died worldwide? Estimates vary, but the most conservative state that the death toll was 25 million. Oher estimates go much higher, up to 70 million or even 100 million. And, as this transcript from a fascinating PBS documentary on the pandemic relates, “As soon as the dying stopped, the forgetting began.”

“The forgetting;” yes. Virtually forgotten by all but scholars or epidemiologists, although it happened within the lifetime of many people still living today: more US soldiers dead from flu than were killed in WWI, many US cities running out of coffins and burying the dead in mass graves, homeless orphans wandering through the streets, schools and factories closed, wild rumors (“the Germans started it”) and familiar theologic explanations (“it’s a punishment for sin”). Read the links to get an idea of the all-encompassing horror of the thing and then tell me, if you can, why my history courses (and perhaps yours?) failed to even mention it.

Although the tsunami caused far fewer deaths than these other natural disasters, it represented a rare concurrence of factors that have caused it to be perceived–at least for now–as more dramatic:

1) It was widely recorded in riveting images, and those images were played almost endlessly on the 24-hour news cycle.

2) It affected an enormous swath of the world over vast distances, but happened very suddenly. This makes it different from an earthquake (sudden but relatively localized) or a pandemic (widespread but occurring more gradually).

3) Most of the places it affected were described as having been like “paradise”–picturesque fishing villages, or lush tropical resorts. The medium was the ocean, a force of nature that the villagers traditionally connected with sustenance, and the rest of us connected with beauty and relaxation. Thus, the tsunami involved a nightmarish reversal of perception: from food-giving life force to death-dealing enemy; from scenic wonder to horror.

4) There were so many children who died, and so many people who lost vast numbers of relatives, as well as whole towns in which the majority of inhabitants perished. The tragedy of the survivors seemed even more intense for that reason–so many of them had lost so much.

5) A tsunami is inherently dramatic, like a tornado. Tsunamis also have the horrific elements of action at a distance; how could one imagine that an earthquake off the shore of Indonesia could wreak such havoc in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and even Somalia only a few hours and so many miles away, its ferocity nearly undiminished? It seems magical and demonic, even when the science is explained.

6) Events of recent years, especially 9/11 for us Americans, have made people think more apocalyptically.

So, will this disaster follow the course of so many others, in which “as soon as the dying stopped, the forgetting began”? And why, in fact, does that sort forgetting happen?

The transcript of the aforementioned PBS program on the influenza epidemic offers the following explanation:

CROSBY: It is in the individual memory of a great many of us, but it’s not in our collective memory. That, for me, is the, is the greatest mystery: how we could have forgotten anything so horrendous, so massively horrendous, as this, this epidemic which killed so many of us, killed us so fast and our reaction was to forget it.

FANNIN: Why? Why wasn’t that part of our memory? Or of our history. I think it’s probably because it was so awful while it was happening, so frightening, that people just got rid of the memory. But it always lingers there. As a kind of an uneasiness. If it happens once before, what’s to say it’s not going to happen again.

What they are saying is that we don’t like to remember how vulnerable we are, and that perhaps that is the most significant reason for this “great forgetting” of seemingly unforgettable catastrophes. There is also the fact that large numbers of deaths are simply too overwhelming for the human mind to encompass. As none other than Joseph Stalin–one of the greatest experts on (and instigators of) such carnage–once remarked: “A single death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” What makes the tsunami deaths a tragedy to us right now is that videotape allowed us to see so many of the sufferers as individuals, and thus as tragedies. But years from now, when that memory is blurred, the deaths will probably come to seem more like statistics. That process appears to be well underway.

But, even if barely remembered or totally forgotten, every now and then truly cataclysmic events can cause changes that still ripple and reverberate down the ages. Our stongest memory of the European Black Death of the Fourteenth Century may now be the children’s rhyme it bequeathed us (“ring around the rosie”). But the Black Death, causing the death of between one-third and one-half of Europe’s population, sparked major and lasting changes and realignments in European society, including the decline of feudalism. How many remember anything about the great Lisbon Earthquake, fire, and tsunami of 1755, which struck at 9 AM on All Saints’ Day and virtually destroyed a city that was one of the major capitals of the world at the time, collapsing churches filled with worshippers, and filling Europe with horror? The earthquake struck not only at the city and its inhabitants, but at the attitude of optimism that had characterized the first half of that century, and caused many to question their previously unshakeable faith in divine providence, advancing the Enlightenment and the science of seismology.

6 Responses to “Disasters and “the forgetting””

  1. Paul Gordon Says:


    Regarding the tsunami …

    You have Frank Martins’ “VariFrank” site among your links. I first ran across it when one of the major new sites referenced ‘Today, I was “Unprofessional”…’

    It is still there, at the bottom of his January 2005 archive

    If the link doesn’t make it in this comment, it is well worth searching on his site.

  2. Paul Gordon Says:

    Well, apparently it didn’t. I still suggest actually looking for it on his site. You wont be disappointed.

  3. Sergey Says:

    Dostoevsky wrote that Lisbon tragedy was instrumental in ascent of nihilism and atheism in Russia. He had a point, and I believe that the same, probably, is true for the West.

  4. expat Says:

    There were loads of European tourists with digital cameras in Thailand when the tsunami struck and even more who had vacationed there previously, so there was a personal connection. It probably also didn’t hurt that the Euros got to show their genenerosity in comparison to the “stingy” Americans. I can still remember Germans making snide remarks about Bush sending a carrier. NGOs loved the coverage, as did the grief counsellors who were anxious to travel to the tropics to counsel people whose language they couldn’t speak.

  5. Laine Says:

    The earthquake and tsunamis happened in December 2004.

  6. Lame-R Says:

    I’m currently reading the Iliad, and it is interesting to me how many stories are interspersed through-out the story. In the heat of battle, the combatants will even stop to tell a miniature story, giving some kind of import to the situation.

    Stories are our collective memory; in researching genealogy, my father has mentioned relatives who died in the influenza epidemic. Without that mention, I would’ve completely forgotten the very brief treatment given it by my grade-school history class.

    The stories you tell on your blog add to my knowledge of ‘our’ memory. The burden rests on those that are older and wiser to choose and tell their stories wisely, that the younger ones such as myself may be able to contextualize our times and season our judgment by the experiences of our elders.

    In other words, keep up the good work. 🙂

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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