Consuming Disaster

Aerial view of Minato after earthquake & tsunami. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ethan Johnson.

Since the Sendai earthquake struck northeastern Japan on March 11, many of us have been riveted to our televisions or computer screens, watching in horror as the death toll mounts, the nuclear threat refuses to subside, and more and more images and video of the tsunami and its aftermath are broadcast around the world. It’s horrible to see, but I find it impossible to look away.

I first learned about the earthquake minutes after it occurred, from a friend on Facebook, and stayed up half the night watching the live coverage on TV. Since then I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time online, checking for anything new — photos, video, updates about the power plant in Fukushima, stories about miraculous rescues (few) and heartbreak (many). I’m really having to force myself to pay attention to my “real” life.

It’s not just obsessive virtual rubbernecking. I have a strong personal connection to Japan. I’m half-Japanese; I was born and partly raised in Japan, and I have relatives and friends there (all safe, thank goodness). And although I know no one in the hardest-hit areas, there is enough that is familiar to me from the images we’re seeing — the peaked, tiled house roofs; the babies carried on their mothers’ backs; the ubiquitous face masks; even people’s  expressions — that I feel connected to the event, even though I’m not except through the common bonds of humanity.

I’ve experienced a couple of notable earthquakes myself — the 1971 San Fernando Earthquake, which happened on my seventh birthday when my family lived in Long Beach, and the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which struck in October of 1989, when my husband and I were grad students at Stanford, 50 miles from the epicenter. My family history includes earthquakes as well. My Japanese grandmother was a survivor of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which is still (and let us hope, will remain) the deadliest earthquake to strike Japan.

But there is something more obsessive and less excusable going on too, a kind of morbid fascination that I can neither adequately account for nor talk myself out of. Perhaps it’s born of helplessness. Besides sending money to help in relief efforts, there is nothing I can do. (Don’t even get me started on the insipidity of all those #prayforJapan tweets.) So I watch and watch and watch, heart aching, as if my tearful watching of someone else’s suffering, witnessed remotely from the comfort of my home, could somehow impinge on that suffering.

Every morning since the quake I’ve gotten up and turned on my laptop to read the latest news. One morning I saw a photograph depicting a couple who’d just found the body of their daughter in a car. The mother is squatting before the ruined automobile, touching her dead daughter’s head. The father stands watching at a slight remove. We can’t see his face, but there’s something unmistakably sad and stoic about his posture. I wept when I saw the photo, and one of my children, absolutely meaning well, leaned over and closed the browser window. “No!” I cried. “I want to see it.”

“But it’s making you sad,” he said.

My other son, equally well-meaning, said, “Mom likes feeling sad.”

“No, I don’t,” I protested. Some things deserve our sadness, I argued. This was one of them.

But later, looking at the photo again, I did wonder if my sons weren’t onto something. Maybe I do like feeling sad. Maybe I’m using this disaster to effect my own private catharses. And maybe there’s something exploitative about that. The disaster is monumentally public. But this family’s grief when they found their daughter’s body — that was private, or should have been, and I was looking at it over my morning tea. (I decided against embedding the image in this post, but you can see it here.)

I think our 24-7 international news cycle indulges — perhaps even helps create — people like me who have a propensity for getting entirely caught up in a thing. At any time of the day or night I can find fresh tweets, Facebook posts, news articles, op-eds, photos, and videos about the unfolding disaster. It’s amazing. (It also allows every crackpot in the world to broadcast their idiotic small-mindedness, but I’m not going to throw pearls before swine by discussing that. Not in this post, anyway.)

But perhaps it’s unhealthy to steep oneself in this for too long. Maybe it’s time to stop rubbernecking and drive on down the road. I wonder if this isn’t what the poet Robert Pinsky was getting at in the opening lines of his poem  “9/11” :

We adore images, we like the spectacle
Of speed and size, the working of prodigious
Systems. So on television we watched

The terrible spectacle, repetitiously gazing
Until we were sick not only of the sight
Of our prodigious systems turned against us

But of the very systems of our watching.

(From “9/11” by Robert Pinsky, published in The Washington Post, September 8, 2002.)

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