The End of Faceless Victims

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Every once in a while, amidst our petty wars and squabbles with each other, Nature reminds us that the real threat to humankind comes from her, not from other human beings. Climate change is human-driven, but its danger is in unleashing uncontrollable natural forces of immense power. We are still defenseless against a meteor strike of the sort that helped polish off the dinosaurs. And, we lack good defenses against tsunamis. Unless we can put aside our divisions and work effectively together on these natural threats, humans remain in extreme danger as a species.
                            -- Juan Cole

On Thursday night, I sat down at my laptop, logged onto the Typepad account that powers The Daily Dish, and began browsing the Web, already aware that an earthquake had struck Japan, but clueless about its magnitude. I planned to put a short news item into the queue to be updated in the morning. It's one advantage of being a night owl on the West Coast: I sometimes prep a story or two before bed so that it's ready for review when my colleagues awake in Washington, D.C.

The story quickly demanded that I break protocol. As the East Coast slept, Japanese news agencies and disaster survivors were uploading video footage of a tsunami as horrifically awesome as any disaster I'd seen. A surge of adrenaline had me frenetically posting links to breaking news, videos and disaster relief resources. That subsided around 3 a.m. PST, as all the cable news reports began to repeat themselves.

What kept me up for several more hours was the strange realization that my words might reach people affected by the disaster. Would some American expat in Japan come across my link to the wiki for missing persons? The Atlantic has readers in the Philippines and Hawaii. Might one of them be working late on a remote stretch of exposed coastline, tuning out the Web save an occasional Daily Dish refresh? I wanted to reach that guy, to own the story, and to know what was happening. Even after I figured out that the Hawaiian islands are well-covered with tsunami sirens, I found myself riveted by the suspense of what would occur in the minutes after 5 a.m. PST, when authorities estimated the first waves would strike. Putting the hashtag #tsunami into a Twitter search, I saw something I'd never before experienced: Tweets scrolling so fast through my Tweet Deck that I couldn't read any single item as the stream came close to crashing my computer. Then I discovered a better search: #HItsunami. Around 4:15 a.m. PST I posted several tweets drawn from that feed:

These fucking sirens are making my heart stop.

If you haven't started yet, now is the time to put down the phone/iPad/laptop and PLUG IT IN. You may need it if power goes out.

Hard to describe feelings knowing a tsunami coming and NOTHING you can do about it.

No going back to sleep with those sirens. I'm up. About to eat & load the car just in case.

There were dozens of notes like that every minute, and watching them was so much more intimate and poignant than the live feed of a Hawaiian TV news cast that I also had open on my computer.

When the December 2004 tsunami happened, I was traveling in Europe. I remember sitting in the TV rooms of various youth hostels watching brief reports on CNN International. What struck me then was the staggering casualty figure: 167,000 killed in all, a number so unfathomably big that it prompted me to make my first ever disaster relief donation. But there wasn't any video footage to help me understand how what I thought of as a mere wave could kill so many. Nor were there survivors connected to social media in numbers anything like what we've seen in Japan. In 2004, there were nameless disaster victims laying dead in a landscape I couldn't envision, and I certainly couldn't conceive of them as brothers-in-arms in the long-running battle that pits man against nature.

But seeing video of communities as they were ravaged by the tsunami, reading tweets from Japanese survivors and nervous Hawaiians that streamed in beside photographs of their faces, seeing Vimeo profiles of people that shot hand-held camcorder footage of waves destroying their town -- it changed how I thought about the people affected. They were less abstract than the faceless victims of the 2004 tsunami, and a lot more like the high school kid who drowned while surfing at a nearby beach, or the families up the street whose houses burned down during the last wildfire, or the folks in the hills across town hoping the first rain of the season doesn't bring mudslides.

Humans have always reached out to victims in their own communities. With increased virtual connectedness, we've long since increased our sphere of concern: The people of any country, upon experiencing a major disaster, are assured of receiving aid dollars given by strangers on the other side of the world. These donors, whether a 24-year-old backpacking through Europe or the United States Congress, are basically signaling, "Hey, we're all in this together." And especially for individual donors, that is a relatively new thing in history: it isn't unusual for people without any family or friends in Haiti or Japan to direct their attention, prayers, and money to disaster recovery.

Alas, the virtual connectedness that makes our fellow humans seem less abstract isn't an unalloyed good. Contra Juan Cole, man is every bit as much a threat as Mother Nature in a nuclear age. And communication technology can trigger outpourings of anger or barbarity as easily as empathetic charitable giving, as anyone from surviving Tutsis to Danish cartoonists in hiding can attest. In a more connected world, where faraway people and events are less abstract than ever before, is familiarity going to breed more empathy or contempt? For better or worse, we're going to find out.


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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