January 2005


How uneven coverage and presentation in the media makes one group of distressed people into distaster victims and refugees, and another group who face equivalent personal disasters into insurgents.

You can't turn on a television or radio these days without hearing about the tsunami tragedy in Asia. It is news. It has photo opertunities. It is tragic. Thousands dead and millions homeless, their livelihoods destroyed with no prospect for improvement. Very sad.

It has only been comparatively recently that human beings have had the capacity to reproduce the same effects as natural disasters by unnatural and artificial means: war. It is very interesting, and heartwarming, to see the outpouring of sympathy and charity in the American media for the tsunami victims, and to contrast this with the media presentation of an equivalent misfortune on the people of Iraq. Let's compare:

Measure Tsunami Iraq
Directly attributable deaths 155,000 - 200,000 100,000 - 300,000
Homeless 3 -5 million 3-5 million
Loss of livelihood 2-7 million 2-5 million
People deprived of services

(power, water, sanitation)

7-15 million 12-25 million
Environmental impact large severe

There are some differences, of course. Many fewer Americans will die because of the tsunami. The tsunami will probably cost the American taxpayers less than the Iraq war. The final death toll from the tsunami will probably be less than the final death toll from the Iraq war (one must remember that whereas the tsunami waves came and went in a single weekend, our armies of occupation may spend long weary years in Iraq).

War is always a misfortune to the people who participate in it, modern war especially so. Can you imagine your feelings if it had been your son or daughter who was accused of torturing people in the US military prisons in Iraq? The psychological damage done to those unfortunate men and women is incalculable.

But the national media spends hours each day exposing the continuing extent of the horror due to the tsunami, and gives the briefest mention of Iraq -- almost all of the Iraq coverage results from official press releases from the US Defense Department. It would be interesting to consider what we'd hear about the tsunami victims if our own military had been responsible for their suffering. I can see it now: "Idonesians receive a second chance to develop coastal economy" or "Sri Lankan's turn out to applaud US Army Corps of Engineers."

Some people may think I am being unfair, equating the effects of a natural disaster and a war. We say, over and over again, how Saddam was a despot and a tyrant. If that is true, then the average Iraqi is no more responsible for the war than the average Indonesian is responsible for the tsunami. We can't have it both ways. The only actual difference is that the victims of the tsunami have no national government to blame their misfortunes on. The Iraqis blame the United States for their misfortunes, and this is the basis for the majority of the unrest that grips their country.

And they are right. No one is responsible for their hardships other than the US -- you really can't blame our allies -- Poland would not have attacked Iraq if we hadn't done so. They continue to fight because they were attacked.

So far, our charity to Asia has amounted to $350 million and our adventure in Iraq has come to something like $200 billion. War is more costly than the average natural disaster. Natural disasters are not magnified by advances in technology. It would be interesting to see the Iraq war and the tsunami aftermath given equal time from the same perspective in the media, but I doubt it will ever happen.

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