Desensitized by Disaster

by Andrew Lane | 10/18/05 5:00am

Large-scale disasters -- including the tsunami in Southeast Asia, Hurricane Rita and the recent earthquake in Pakistan--are severe drains on global morale and non-victims are rapidly becoming desensitized.

Dartmouth students have done a commendable job organizing the Katrina Relief program through the Tucker Foundation. Such a program embraces a sense of national community and exemplifies our school's willingness to help others. Tragedies of great magnitude result in massive losses of life and property and require extensive manpower and monetary aid. Such times of need stimulate the assistance of individuals and communities worldwide. Many relief efforts, however, are so massive and widely publicized that emergencies on smaller scales receive little attention.

The constant bombardment of visuals from these disasters -- drowned bodies, crying children, destroyed houses and bloodied rescue workers -- elicit many emotions. Repeated exposure to these disturbing sights causes witnesses to grow numb and calloused. Callusing is a natural response to such perpetual trauma, but detachment from one's surrounding environment should not be acceptable. In the midst of such traumatic times across the globe, it is easy to lose track of and dismiss lesser events.

After this past week of heavy rain, southwestern New Hampshire suffered extreme flooding that killed three people and left four presumed dead. One thousand people were forced from their homes. Fifteen inches of rain burst dams and pushed rivers two feet above flood level, causing New Hampshire Governor John Lynch to declare a state of emergency for what he described as the worst flooding to hit the state in a quarter century. Yet, somehow, despite its proximity and magnitude, it did not cause the slightest stir on campus.

It is necessary to prioritize one's donations of attention, time and money with so many worthy charities and organizations. Large-scale disaster relief efforts, however, can quickly turn from charitable causes to celebrity events. Oprah's "Angel Network" and "Stars Gather for Hurricane Relief" do work toward a good cause, but it is often hard to decipher between compassionate humanitarianism and gratuitous publicity. Such stunts can cheapen dire situations, and further the emotional separation between victims and non-victims.

Any and all aid to quell suffering and sense of loss is a benevolent and kind-hearted gesture. The Tucker Foundation's effort to raise money and encourage donations for Hurricane Katrina is worthy of high praise and will ideally grow in strength to reach the goal of 100 percent student participation. Unfortunately, disasters with death tolls in the hundreds are now necessary to generate more than statewide concern.

Even the most catastrophic natural disaster news is now generally met with mild concern among students. It is not pragmatic to cry for each disaster victim. As reports of tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and fires flood the news, many students see it as just another disaster, in just another place, with just another thousand people killed. For most, it took the damage of Katrina to really hit home. But now, with so much time, energy and concern dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans, less emotion remains to attend to comparatively smaller misfortunes.

When mentioning the recent submersion of Keene, N.H. to some students, many had heard nothing of such news. After learning more, the general sentiment toward the topic was, "Yeah, it did rain a lot this week." News of death and disorder is now so commonplace that a significant tragedy within a hundred miles hardly raises an eyebrow.

We must continue to reach out to disaster victims across the globe. Our desensitization, however, cannot allow us to overlook or ignore smaller plights. To focus solely on instances with thousands of deaths or billions of dollars in damage reduces the value of a single life and a single home.

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