From the Goucher Quarterly, Winter 2005

The world is still reeling from the impact of the undersea earthquake and the tsunami that devastated several countries in Asia and Africa at the end of last year. This was truly the 9/11 of natural disasters, with nearly 300,000 people known dead or missing and perhaps tens of millions of others whose lives will never be the same.

Outside efforts to help, if initially disorganized and inadequate, have been extraordinary. The commitment in the United States, public and especially private, has been truly inspirational, full of characteristic ingenuity and originality. Before long, it became possible to donate money online, and even to get frequent flier miles for doing so. Religious groups and organizations scrambled to hold ecumenical memorial services; schoolchildren learned about places they may never have known existed; and Congress made it possible to deduct January 2005 contributions to tsunami relief from 2004 income tax returns. Through this crisis, it seems, we have achieved a new, more subtle understanding of the fragility and tenuousness of life for people in the developing world, even in this modern era of globalization, miraculous technology, and accelerated communication.

Or have we?

There is a temptation to worry that before long, we will be hit by one more severe case of what has come to be known as “compassion fatigue”—a deadening of our sensibilities by the unrelenting bombardment of shallow and sensationalist media coverage of disease, famine, death, and war.

Susan D. Moeller, a well-traveled observer who now teaches at the University of Maryland, has written tellingly of this phenomenon. “Through a choice of language and images,” she says, “the newest event is represented as more extreme than a similar past situation.” When we use the same extreme words to describe very different events, we undermine our ability to differentiate among them. Our sense of tragedy and cataclysm can be ratcheted only so high before we simply become overwhelmed. Some news organizations try to hold our attention by personalizing the events—pointing out, for example, that U.S. citizens perished in the tsunami, or drawing comparisons between this disaster overseas and others closer to home. But eventually, a limit is reached, and our ability to identify and sympathize disappears.

Reporting the more troubling events of the world without turning people off is a tricky proposition, even when it’s done well. I recently attended a gathering of higher education leaders that was addressed by a well-regarded political pundit from Washington. He was sharply critical of my alma mater, National Public Radio, for its overcoverage of international problems. “Why, to listen to NPR,” he complained, “you would think that there is trouble everywhere. It’s exhausting.” Visitors from across the country—sufferers all from compassion fatigue, I suppose—nodded their heads in agreement.

“Well,” I said, as I attempted to confront him later, “there really is a lot to worry about in the world, and someone has to call our attention to it.” He was not about to be persuaded, preferring instead to focus on the customary agenda of parochial issues facing Americans.

There’s a real danger in that attitude. If we allow our exhaustion to keep us from thinking about global concerns, we risk ignoring some important issues that may deserve a place in our consciousness alongside our domestic debates. By now it should be obvious that events and conditions around the world can have a profound impact on Main Street America. One would think there is plenty of evidence to make the point: the crisis- inspired fluctuation in gasoline prices at the pump; the international shortage of steel and concrete due to the construction boom in China; and the ebb and flow of immigration to the United States on the basis of circumstances in Mexico and Central America, among other places. Not to mention the consequences we have all experienced, in varying ways and to varying degrees, as a result of the Iraq war.

The tsunami has ramifications for Americans beyond what might seem immediately apparent. It has been suggested that American generosity toward these countries with large Muslim populations could have an important restorative effect on the United States’ image throughout the Muslim world. It’s a shame it took a catastrophe like this to get us interested in what’s going on there. Perhaps if we paid closer attention to the concerns of others over a sustained period of time, we would gain a better understanding of the global disparities that breed problems like terrorism—and, in the process, go a long way toward making the world safer for everyone.

In the heat of political battle, in the midst of some of our own legitimate preoccupations, it may have become more difficult to sustain the argument that Americans’ lives are meaningfully affected by poverty, disease, and tragedy in distant, hard-to-pronounce places. But we must not turn our attention away, and we must demand that those we entrust to report the news be not only vigilant, but also responsible, in their presentation of global events.

Otherwise, we will be doomed to await the tsunamis of history, literal and figurative, to help us figure out what is really going on.