In death, imperialism lives on
For the western media, it is clear that a tourist's tragedy is moreimportant than that of the 'locals'
Friday December 31, 2004, The Guardian
The number of fishing boats from Sumatra, Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu at seawhen the Boxing Day tsunami hit will never be known. There is scarcely anypopulation tally of the crowded coasts. Nameless people are consigned tounmarked graves; in mosques and temples, makeshift mortuaries, people pullaside a cloth, a piece of sacking, to see if those they loved lie beneath.As in all natural disasters, the victims are overwhelmingly the poorest. This time there was something different. The tsunami struck resorts wherewesterners were on holiday. For the western media, it was clear that theirlives have a different order of importance from those that have died inthousands, but have no known biography, and, apparently, no intelligibletongue in which to express their feelings. This is not to diminish thetrauma of loss of life, whether of tourist or fisherman. But when wedistinguish between "locals" who have died and westerners, "locals" all tooeasily becomes a euphemism for what were once referred to as natives.Whatever tourism's merits, it risks reinforcing the imperial sensibility. For this sensibility has already been reawakened by all the human-made,preventable catastrophes. The ruins of Galle and Bandar Aceh called forthimages of Falluja, Mosul and Gaza. Imperial powers, it seems, anticipatethe destructive capacity of nature. A report on ITN news made thisexplicit, by referring to "nature's shock and awe". But while the tsunamideath toll rises in anonymous thousands, in Iraq disdainful Americanauthorities don't do body counts. One of the most poignant sights of the past few days was that of westernersovercome with gratitude that they had been helped by the grace and mercy ofthose who had lost everything, but still regarded them as guests. Whenthese same people appear in the west, they become the interloper, theunwanted migrant, the asylum seeker, who should go back to where theybelong. A globalisation that permits the wealthy to pass effortlesslythrough borders confines the poor to eroded subsistence, overfished watersand an impoverishment that seems to have no end. People rarely say thatpoor countries are swamped by visitors, even though their money powerpre-empts the best produce, the clean water and amenities unknown to theindigenous population. In death, there should be no hierarchy. But even as Sri Lankans wandered innumb disbelief through the corpses, British TV viewers were being warnedthat scenes they were about to witness might distress them. Poor peoplehave no consoling elsewhere to which they can be repatriated. The annals ofthe poor remain short and simple, and can be effaced without inquiry as tohow they contrive an existence on these fragile coasts. What are the dailyvisitations of grief and loss in places where people earn less in a yearthan the price that privilege pays for a night's stay in a five-star hotel?Western governments, which can disburse so lavishly in the art of war,offer a few million as if it were exceptional largesse. Fortunately thepeople are wiser; and the spontaneous outpourings of humanity have been asunstoppable as the waves that broke on south Asia's coasts; donationsrapidly exceeded the amount offered by government. Selflessness andsacrifice, people working away at rubble with bare hands, suggest immediatehuman solidarities. But these are undermined by the structures of inequality. Promises solemnlymade at times of immediate sorrow are overtaken by other urgencies; moneydonated for the Orissa cyclone, for hurricane Mitch in Central America, thefloods in Bangladesh, the Bam earthquake - as for the reconstruction ofAfghanistan and Iraq - turns out to be a fraction of what is pledged. Such events remind us of the sameness of our human destiny, the fragilityof our existence. They place in perspective the meaning of security. Lifeis always at the mercy of nature - whether from such overwhelming events asthis, or the natural processes that exempt no one from paying back to earththe life it gave us. Yet we inhabit systems of social and economicinjustice that exacerbate the insecurity of the poor, while the west isprepared to lay waste distant towns and cities in the name of a securitythat, in the end, eludes us all. Assertions of our common humanity occur only at times of great loss. Toretrieve and hold on to it at all other times - that would be something ofworth to salvage from these scenes of desolation. ·
(Jeremy Seabrook is the author of Consuming Cultures: Globablisation andLocal Life)