The Tsunami Effect

Calamities that take up residence in the collective mind tend to share certain features.

At the start of his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes about a 14th-century war between two African kingdoms in which 100,000 people died "in excruciating torment." His point is that we never give a thought to that war. All of that suffering is completely absent from our consciousness. It's as if it never happened.

To be truly conscious of every tragedy that befalls the planet would be an awful burden. So we tend to live in blithe ignorance of the world's horrors. Wars, famines, genocide, disease, earthquakes, and other natural disasters are always happening somewhere. Many thousands die miserable deaths every day, and we scarcely notice.

But once in a while, a catastrophe comes along that has exactly the opposite effect: It enters our lives in the most intense way and stays there, blotting out everything else and becoming almost literally inescapable. This happens through the media, and it's been happening lately with the Asian tsunami. What makes a story like this grow? No two calamities are exactly alike, but those that take up residence in the collective mind tend to share certain features.

Numbers. In the early hours after the tsunami, there were reports of 10,000 to 15,000 people dead. While these numbers leapt out from the rest of the news that day, the fact is that natural disasters often have a lot of victims. If it had been a terrorist attack, 10,000 dead would be historic; for an earthquake, it's in the middle range. Moreover, when an event is geographically distant, as this one was, the numbers have to be extremely large to resonate. This is why both the media and the political establishment were initially so tentative about the tsunami. It was certainly news, but not necessarily drop-everything news. As the death toll rapidly approached six figures, so did the awareness that this wasn't just another tragedy.

Details. Foreign catastrophes often come to us in blurry generalities: a basic description of the event, casualty estimates, and a few grainy visuals lifted from the local media. If nothing else follows, the story is likely to peter out. That this one didn't was partly because of the extremely detailed accounts from survivors that came right on the heels of the initial reports. Many of the survivors were English-speaking tourists, including some journalists who happened to be on vacation in the region. Their vivid, breathless eyewitness stories allowed the drama and destruction of the event to come home, literally, in an unusually immediate way.

Visuals. Thanks to digital cameras, images of the tsunami started appearing right away. A lot of them were shaky and out of focus, but there were so many videos and stills that you didn't have to work hard to get a palpable sense of the event. The tsunami was there in living color, again and again, every time you turned on the TV or visited an online news site. For sheer visual volume, it was the biggest story of mass death since 9/11.

It Could Have Been Me. Nothing raises popular interest in a tragedy quicker than vicarious projection. The more you can imagine yourself as a victim, the more you'll connect to a story. Most foreign disasters, even the natural ones, lack this dimension. A mudslide in Mongolia doesn't call to mind the mudslide peril here at home. But the tsunami had a high projection quotient from the start, in part because it hit all of those Western tourists in a setting anyone could identify with—the beach. News outlets across the United States have run feature stories about locals who were either caught in the tsunami or have relatives in the region.

When New York's Daily News made Sports Illustrated cover girl Petra Nemcova its tsunami cover girl, the move was, on one level, a parody of celebrity values trumping life and death. Above a huge picture of Nemcova, who survived the tsunami, and her boyfriend, who didn't, was the not-so-huge headline, "At Least 24,000 Dead in Tsunami." That showed a regrettable lack of proportion. Nonetheless, Nemcova has also served as a kind of everywoman, somebody from our world who has helped the public imagine themselves into the tragedy. The largest type on the Daily News cover was reserved for a decidedly unglitzy Nemcova quotation: "Kids were screaming. Then you didn't hear the kids anymore." Celebrity, maybe, but that's a quote you don't forget. In recent days, the projection has become more focused, as in: Could it happen here? Early this week, I got curious if anyone had yet used that precise angle, and I typed the phrase into Google News. Bingo, just out from Time magazine: "Could It Happen Here? You Bet; A Tsunami Striking the U.S. Is Not a Question of If But When."

Everything Has Changed. When you start hearing that a tragedy has such immense implications—political, economic, social, cultural—that life itself may never be the same, you know you're in the presence of one of the big ones. This happened after 9/11, of course, and it started happening this week with the tsunami. Countless news outlets weighed in on how it might affect global politics, economics, terrorism, and countless other matters. The Independent newspaper of London took paradigm-shifting the furthest with the headline: "Could the Tsunami Disaster Be a Turning Point for the World?"

Whether or not that happens, for the moment, this isn't another one of those arm's-length disaster stories. When it comes to the rest of the world, Americans and their media are often hopelessly checked out. Nobody can say that now.