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Tsunami Relief Remarks
Greater Danbury Coalition, January 28, 2005

It’s an honor to be asked to speak at this Greater Danbury Coalition event. We come together to raise funds to help people half way around the world, people we’ve never met, people with whom, in many ways, we have little in common. But we know, after the horrific events of December 26, that they have need, and we, too, have need to come together. We are almost instinctively drawn to do so.

But why do we do this? What is it about events like the South Asian Tsunami that bring out our most generous, our most charitable instincts?

The short answer is that we do it because of our own values, faith, or religious beliefs. We love our neighbors, even those on the other side of the globe, as ourselves. Maybe it’s because we think, as the popular 19th century American preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, put it, “Every charitable act is a stepping stone toward heaven.”

But I believe that we also come together for such purposes at such times as we do tonight in an effort to make sense of what we see, to give meaning to events that appear meaningless.

Certainly the Tsunami of December 26 was such an event. It’s simply hard to fathom it. We understand similar tragedies better if they are man-made. The attack that brought down the Twin Towers on September 11, for example, was the work of human beings. Perverted, evil human beings to be sure, but we understand at some level their motivation and how it happened. And we’ve been engaged in a nation-wide effort ever since to prevent similar attacks from happening again. And, so far we can be thankful that they haven’t.

But what happened in the Indian Ocean on that day after Christmas was so abrupt, so unreasoning, so random. Literally in minutes, tens of thousands of people simply disappeared. Tens of thousands of others were found dead in the days that followed. Hundreds of thousands of survivors had their lives uprooted.

The people who perished that day were random victims. They represented no particular class, race, gender or age. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. A better warning system might have helped some, but certainly not the thousands who perished at Bandar Aceh in Indonesia, near the epicenter. There just wasn’t enough time.

An even if there were time, the communication networks in that part of the world are under-developed and the physical infrastructure there fragile. I’ve spent time in Tamil Nadu in Southeast India, where many lost their lives. I couldn’t help thinking of how wide and gradual the slope of the beach in Chennai is, or of how fragile so many of the man-made structures in that part of the world are. Many people there just never had a chance.

Throughout history, men and women have wrestled to try to make sense of such events. In earlier times, such tragedies were seen as the judgment of an angry God or gods. That was certainly the view of our New England Puritan forefathers with regard to the great earthquake of 1755 that destroyed the city of Lisbon, Portugal. They judged it a sign that New Englanders had to reverse what they viewed as a decline in morals. And there indeed are Islamic fundamentalists today who see in the Tsunami retribution for co-religionists in Indonesia who’ve strayed from the faith.

But most of the world’s religious traditions believe in a God of love. To me at least, an interpretation of the Tsunami as an act of divine retribution seems quite far-fetched. It doesn’t add up. It’s not meaningful. And so I, probably like you, try in others ways to make sense of the Tsunami. To give it meaning of some kind.

For some of history’s great natural disasters, such meaning came centuries later. Take, for example, the Italian city of Pompeii, buried in 79 AD by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This disaster has become meaningful after its excavation by producing the world’s best classical museum. In their death, the citizens (who were buried along with their possessions, and whom you can see now if you visit), show us how ancient Romans lived. The tragedy thus contributed to learning.

Another example. In 1883, a volcanic eruption in the same part of the world as the recent Tsunami killed unknown thousands on the Island of Krakatoa. The size of this eruption was so great that its cloud of debris circled the globe and gave the sky a strange, unique red tint that’s observable in the work of European painters from that year. The tragedy created, after the fact, meaning in art.

But that’s history and art; and comes later. More immediately, we endeavor to make sense of such senseless tragedies by turning to our most human characteristics. We try to help; we reach out through song, poetry and dance; we give of our resources. We remember what founding father Benjamin Franklin said, “To bear other people’s afflictions, everyone has courage and enough to spare.”

Certainly we here in Danbury have courage and by coming together, we’ve demonstrated that we do indeed have enough to spare. Our generosity will directly help those in South Asia who’ve survived and who’ve had their lives permanently shattered. And it will lend at least some meaning to these events for us.

Our coming together also tells us something about what we here in Danbury are like as a community. It gives us hope that our collective energy and commitment can also address pressing issues and problems closer to home. As president of your hometown university, it’s a privilege to address you. As a relatively new member of the Danbury community, it’s an honor to be amongst you tonight.

 

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