The tragedy of the earthquake and the power of humanity
In the midst of a period in world history that is characterized by fragmentation and discord, it takes a tragedy of the magnitude of the earthquake in Turkiye and Syria to unite us in a common understanding of what is really important for all of us, as human beings and as societies, but equally in our relations with other nations and their people. In an era of 24-hour news and constant social media feed, we watch in horror a disaster that has already claimed more than 45,000 lives and left many more injured, causing unimaginable devastation as it unfolds before our eyes like a horror movie, but in this case it is real life and real suffering.
We hold our breath as we watch rescue teams pull survivors out of the rubble, be it a child, a pregnant woman or an elderly person, and for a split second our hearts are filled with joy and gratitude toward those brave women and men for their dedication under such dangerous conditions, and with the hope of miraculously finding more survivors.
Suddenly people around the world are united in pain in the face of immeasurable suffering. Old differences, even enmities, are put aside, and instead our humanity is pouring out. Rescue teams rush in from far and wide, and millions of people are opening their wallets and donating whatever they can in support of international organizations that deliver humanitarian aid. Dozens of countries dispatched rescue teams and other forms of aid immediately after the earthquake hit, and billions of dollars have already been pledged by the international community for the eventual rebuilding process, although due to the political conditions in Syria that country has benefited less from the outpouring of both material and spiritual generosity.
While the very humane response of being deeply touched by this disaster and wanting to help is moving and should be taken as a most natural response that is only to be expected, it also begs the question: Why is this sense of camaraderie, deep empathy, altruism and international cooperation prompted in the face of certain events and not others, especially if those others are man-made, and why doesn’t that same reaction last? There is something about the random nature and the ferocity of natural disasters, and the fact that they are clearly no one’s fault, that unites us in grief but also in wishing to support the victims in any way we can, be it by donating money, food, blankets, clothing or tents, or rushing to the scene to rescue, comfort, and eventually help rebuild these devastated communities.
This response deserves respect, even admiration, but should be extended beyond such cruel disasters, as a norm for other issues that could save millions more lives and improve the quality of even more, but instead countries and societies fall into the trap of believing that in cooperating on such issues they are compromising their national interests, and in supporting others they deprive themselves of resources, while being unable to see the bigger picture and acknowledge that mutual support means the sum is bigger than its parts.
There is something about the ferocity of natural disasters that unites us in grief.
It is one of the greatest challenges of our times to completely demolish the Hobbesian “state of nature” idea that humanity’s natural condition is a state of war, a view that has been taking hold of our way of thinking and consequently dictates that we see others as potential threats and enemies rather than friends and allies. In dealing with the big challenges that pose a threat to our survival, we instead need to translate Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “social contract” into a global contract, in which collaboration according to an agreed set of rules ensures our physical survival and improves our standard of living and wellbeing.
While natural disasters, because they appear suddenly with little warning and great destructive force, lead us to focus our attention on taking actions that limit their consequences, inexplicably, crucial existential issues such as the climate change crisis, wars and conflicts, or the need for political, social and economic development, hardly manage to prompt such actions. To a certain extent this discrepancy can be attributed to our attention span, especially with the 24-hour news cycle and the social media stream, but this would be to oversimplify and overlook much deeper flaws in us as human beings and as part of the state-based system.
We are driven partly by instincts, but to a much greater extent by education, socialization and indoctrination, to be less trusting and more suspicious of one another, and to prioritize ourselves, even when there is a room for cooperation or generosity toward the “other.” It takes a disaster on the scale of the Turkish and Syrian earthquake to arouse our empathy, and to show with it a readiness to forego those distrustful traits in favor of the greater good.
Couldn’t this fleeting, even though genuine, outburst of care and support and clear vision on how to improve things while mobilizing different segments of society and resources for a worthy cause, be applied to other areas of our lives? We are witnessing this to an extent in the war in Ukraine, but while most of the world sides with Ukraine against the Russian aggressor, it remains a divisive issue that a year later is still unnecessarily spilling the blood of thousands of innocent people. But since it is a man-made disaster, instead of finding common ground and stopping it, reconstructing, rehabilitating and aiding recovery from its traumatic effects, the conflict is being fueled not only by the aggressor, but also by those who support it.
Similarly, while there is agreement in principle on how to address global warming, and despite a looming disaster of a magnitude that might bring humankind to extinction, the implementation of these agreements suffers from partisan and parochial interests. By establishing a united front in dealing with global warming, with a sense of purpose and the allocation of adequate resources, disasters on an even bigger scale than the earthquake in Turkiye and Syria could be averted, but this would require putting aside vested interests, something that is far beyond the current state of affairs.
It seems that when it comes to disasters inflicted by our own doing, although they are preventable, we are reluctant to apply the same logic, empathy and selflessness as we show when natural disasters hit us. For this approach to change before it is too late, we need to rethink both the way we perceive what it means to be part of humanity as a whole, and also how it needs to be preserved, and accordingly build the institutions and tools to facilitate this.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.