The immense and heartbreaking devastation resulting from the tsunamis that were caused by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra on Dec. 26 brings home in an unavoidable way something we prefer not to acknowledge most of the timenamely, just how fragile life can be.
As of this writing, the death toll stands at 84,000. But untold thousands more are still missing and unaccounted for. Indeed, one of the most staggering aspects of this tragedy is how the death toll has been galloping ever higher. The present toll has quadrupled (in a couple of days) the initial estimate of 20,000 dead.
Experts say that the second wave of deathcaused by disease in the aftermath of the floodingcould produce a number of victims that equals or exceeds that which came directly as a result of the tsunamis.
In this country we have no direct experience of a natural disaster that exacts such an exceedingly high toll in livescertainly nothing in the range of 20,000not to mention 80,000in one fell swoop.
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Yet in this age of instant communication, the agony of a father who has lost his wife and children in Cuddalore, India, can touch us as deeply as if it were our next-door neighbor. The apprehension of a mother in Phuket, Thailand, desperately looking at pictures of deceased victims causes our own heart to knot up in anguish.
In this country, intimations of the fragility of life are more likely to come from man-made tragedies with smaller (although still disturbing) death tolls or on the level of a single person passing unexpectedly. That is why the unprecedentedly large toll of the attacks of Sept. 11 is still so bruising for so many of us in this country.