Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Cultural Aftershocks

The Artful Dodger steps into a new year, though I'm entirely unsatisfied with his premiere. The highlight must be the subhead.
The Cultural Aftershocks
Two Earthquakes, Two Nations, One Sobering Realization

I spent Winter Break in a television trance. But whenever I broke away from VH1's marathon sessions of C-grade celebrities telling me what to remember from the '70s and '80s, I checked out the newspaper to see if anything was happening in the current decade.

Life, it turns out, continues despite VH1. Dueling natural disasters an ocean apart shook the earth, thrusting before Americans the reality of our collective good fortunes.

Three days before Christmas, an earthquake shook the greater part of California's midsection, sending vibrations from her brain center in Sacramento to her grody genitals in Los Angeles. Seismologists placed the quake's epicenter near Paso Robles, a rest stop of a town situated along the 101, and estimate its magnitude at about 6.5 on the Richter scale. The shaking toppled the town's iconic clock tower, killing two women.

On Dec. 26, the earth trembled again. A quake of similar magnitude shook the Iranian town of Bam. This disaster, however, leveled most of the city, including its ancient citadel, a former archeological marvel and a major tourist attraction. Most grievously, the Iranian government has yet to accurately estimate the death toll its country has suffered. Rescue workers have recovered nearly 30,000 bodies from the ruins of Bam, but another 20,000 could still be lost among the ruins.

My whole childhood, I've heard the lecture from various authority figures about how the lives of people in other countries were a lot harder than those of Americans. I can even remember my parents reiterating that tired, guilt-spurning chastisement of "You know, there are starving children in Africa" when I refused their choices for dinner.

I never saw the disparity of life here and life in that faraway land of poverty and disadvantage called "over there" more clearly, however, than when I looked at the aftermath of these twin quakes.

California is a densely populated sliver of North America. Millions of its residents had to stop last-minute Christmas preparations to ride out the shock waves of the Paso Robles temblor. Yet, because California belongs to a nation that can afford (a) the scientific research to study earthquakes and (b) the cost of constructing buildings that survive life in earthquake country, our damage was minimal.

Fortune did not smile so fondly on the people of Bam. Sure, Bam's population of 100,000 dwarves Paso Robles' 25,000 residents, but nearly half of Bam residents may be dead. The California quake claimed, thankfully, only two lives.

No matter where a person's political affiliations lie, he or she must agree that the American life is a pampered one. As Americans, most of us enjoy a higher degree of luxury - from the quality of food we eat to the sturdiness of the buildings we live inside - than nearly every other person on the planet.

There's no specific moral I'm reaching for here. I'm not begging forgiveness of my brothers and sisters across the sea and I'm not liquidating all my assets so I can send these strangers all of my money. However, every American owes themselves the time to ponder this privilege, how it shapes their lives and how it affects other nations' perceptions of us.

Just entertain the thought. Bouncing the idea around your head might just help you understand where you're coming from and where the rest of the world stands. Oh, and please be happy your house didn't fall on you.

Daily Nexus opinion editor and earthquake veteran Drew is hugging the reinforced walls as you read this.