[TODAY]From arms race to relief raceWhen a tragic disaster occurs, people first pour out complaints toward a god, whether it is the God of Christianity, Allah of Islam, or Buddha of Buddhism. When Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, destroyed Israel in the sixth century B.C., people lamented, standing on the ruins of Israel and asking one another, “Why has the Lord done such a thing to this great city?” (NIV Old Testament Jeremiah 22:8)
It was the same in 1755 when an earthquake hit Lisbon, Portugal, killing 90,000 people out of its population of 275,000. The earthquake was accompanied by immense waves and fires, and the waves crossed the Mediterranean Sea to take the lives of 10,000 people in Morocco in North Africa.
Lisbon was the fourth-largest city in Europe, after London, Paris and Naples. The disaster in Lisbon was truly a great shock to the European thinkers who believed that all mysteries of the universe, including the existence of God, could be explained by Newton’s law of gravity.
The mainstream European philosophy was the enlightenment with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Francois Voltaire as two pillars of the rationalism. They believed in the god of reason, that just as a clock that runs precisely proves the value of a clockmaker, a universe that runs harmoniously proves the Creator. They believed that God created the world that moves according to unchangeable physical and moral law, and entrusted its management to rational human beings.
Voltaire was particularly shocked at the great Lisbon earthquake. He turned his back on the enlightenment by writing a poem that asked, “Are all existences justifiable?” “Speak out. / From the deplorable tragedy of Lisbon, what do we gain?”
His novel “Candide,” written after witnessing the disaster in Lisbon, created a great sensation. Traveling around Europe, Latin America, Asia and Middle East, the protagonist “Candide” sees the world full of liars, traitors, betrayers, thieves, cheapskates, murderers, fanatics, hypocrites and fools. This portrait was contrary to what his enlightened instructor had taught him.
The earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia are no exceptions either. The archbishop of Canterbury of the Anglican Communion has asked how such a disaster could happen if God existed. On the Internet as well, believers in Christianity, Islam and Buddhism and atheists are engaged in discussions over whether God was behind the earthquake in Southeast Asia.
The lesson that future generations should have learned from the Great Lisbon Earthquake was Rousseau’s cool-headed socioscientific approach. Rousseau pointed out that casualties would have been far fewer if people living on the coast had promptly escaped when the ground first shook. “How many people had lost their lives, trying to take more clothes and money with them!” he said. He advised that cities situated in earthquake-prone areas should thoroughly draw up quake proofing plans.
He seems to have predicted that the same mistakes would be repeated in Southeast Asia in 250 years. When the earthquake and the waves came, Thailand and Indonesia did not listen to the wave warning that could have given them more than 90 minutes to escape, because the former was worried about the damage it might cause to tourism and the latter lacked a proper system and was insensitive to safety.
There is another lesson from Lisbon: The Marquis of Pombal, then-prime minister of Portugal, fended off pressure from Jesuits who interpreted the earthquake as a disaster sent by God and tried to use restoration projects for the expansion of religious influence. The marquis then pursued the restoration of Lisbon with an eye on the future of the nation.
In a social and cultural environment where the Inquisition still existed and the Jesuits were monopolizing politics by colluding with aristocrats, the marquis’ vision and courage can be a model for us.
Disasters may be the will of God, but settling the situation afterward is the responsibility of man. The relief efforts in Southeast Asia are a good thing. The United States sent an aircraft carrier, and Japan dispatched self-defense forces. Germany and Australia also took bold steps toward the relief efforts.
We should not be cynical about their competing to offer aid by saying that participants have political motives in trying to win over Southeast Asia. Whatever the motive, the organized poverty eradication efforts and the relief race, rather than the arms race, are the great tasks for international politics in the 21st century. These are the most effective methods for solving the problem of terrorism.
If the international community, torn by the war in Iraq, finds a new model of international cooperation with the restoration of the damage by the tsunami, the misfortune could turn into a blessing.
It is important to establish a UN-led relief fund and set up a global earthquake and wave warning system. In view of its economic size, Korea should also take an active part in the relief efforts.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie