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Tuesday, 12.29.04: Tsunami Tears

I've been tuning into the coverage of the tsunami. Definitely horror movie material: a peaceful day at the beach and suddenly -- quietly -- the sea rises to swallow you, then drains away leaving chaos.

It's the kind of news story that commands non-stop coverage, like the Florida hurricanes this year. We gaze. Just how terrible can it get? How high will the body count go? We are voyeurs.

But something bothers me.

Long ago TV reporters got wise about showing people in the throes of grief over fresh tragedies. They learned to give heartbroken parents and sobbing spouses their space. But why does that rule only apply to English-speaking people? If you are English-speaking or at least European, we might witness the trembling jaw or the swipe of a tear before the tape discreetly cuts back to the reporter. But if you are a poor third-worlder the camera keeps rolling. They can sob, they can double over wishing they could rip their own hearts out and the camera keeps rolling.

Why is this? The footage is more wrenching, for sure. Award-winning. But there is distance -- these are strangers. They will never see the broadcast. Their neighbors will never see the broadcast. So it's okay if they make a spectacle of themselves.

A little respect is due. But there is more than simple respect involved. A cultural message is conveyed.

Florida hurricane victims and American tourists at Phuket are portrayed as brave -- stalwart in a crisis. Toughing it out. Never losing their dignity. But when indigenous people are shown in the midst of what we know damn well is a universal meltdown, we can't help seeing them as helpless, a bit pathetic as we stare. Our kind of people are noble in the face of tragedy, while they are miserable and out of control.  Our kind of people pick up their hammers and start to rebuild, while their lives are ruined.

I have to change the channel to "Law & Order" reruns.


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