One of the joys when building our home several years ago was the addition of a large HDTV on the wall and a very nice, state-of-the-art sound system. Great for sports and action movies. We’ve enjoyed it.
Until last week. Until Haiti crumbled at the world’s feet. Until crushed and mangled bodies were spread across our wall with dazzling clarity. Until theater sound broadcast cries of pain, abandonment and loss. Until superb technology surrounded us with suffering on a scale we had never seen.

The same brilliant electronics that brought football, baseball and worldwide programming to us in such clarity turned against our senses. Instead of athletic competition we were left stunned and numbed by pictures and sounds from a world gone terribly … horribly … wrong. The splendor of sports achievement was suddenly replaced by the all-too-real spectacle of a nation collapsing.

Having been a journalist most of my working life, I’ve seen my share of graphic death. I’ve even got a large roll of film … outtakes from accidents and other violent events I’ve covered … that couldn’t be broadcast because of the gore.

In the middle of the night in November, 1955, I was picked up by the back of my air force neck and dropped in a blackened farm field near Longmont, CO. The next 24 hours were spent with other GI’s, carrying a bag and a sifting net, picking up bodies, pieces of bodies and bits of bodies so burned and broken it was hard to tell what had been a person and what was field litter. And the smell. The smell of burning flesh and gasoline. You never, never forget it. Back at the base, we just threw our clothes and boots away.

A guy named John Gilbert Graham had put a bomb in a thermos bottle on a flight to Seattle. Seems he had been treated badly as a child and this was his way to get even with his mother who was on that plane.

So, yes, violent death and its aftermath are not new to me. But Haiti. Haiti was something none of us could prepare for.

I can’t imagine anyone watching this horror unfold not being affected in some way. We’re a curious lot. We rubberneck driving past a fender bender. We stand at the roadblock to watch firemen work on a house fire. We push against the yellow tape as police officers investigate brutal crime down the street. We just have to see for ourselves what’s going on where emergency lights blaze.

But our Haiti experience is different. This isn’t some scene of deadly violence where the litter will be swept up by a street crew so tomorrow there’ll be no clue of what happened. This is not a plane crash that headlines the news for a day or two then disappears. This isn’t even 9-11 which seared our minds as we watched buildings fall but which is now wrapped in some insulated part of our brains.

Haiti is just too … too … I can’t even come up with words that capture the scope of the tragedy. In total, it defies all usual description. People on top of the hill and those in the slums were treated evenhandedly in death and loss. Our electronic front row seats have made us witnesses to all.

There’ll never be a realistic death count. With no recent census, and mass disposal of bodies which has become necessary, thousands and thousands of people … individual real people … will have simply disappeared. Dollar estimates of damage won’t mean much because so much physical destruction was in the slums where structures lost had little real value.

Somehow our usual response to disaster of sending a few dollars isn’t as comforting as in other times. It feels like another raindrop in a storm. The damage … the loss … the scope … the death toll … all overwhelm not only our senses but also the magnitude of what little we can offer in help.

When television cameras leave so, too, I’m afraid will much of the world’s interest and participation in rebuilding in the impossibly long aftermath. I hope not though it almost always does. Maybe this time, because of the totality of loss, our attention will not be so short-lived.

When I think of the geologic history of the area in which we live and the forecasts of eventual massive seismic activity here in the Northwest, maybe those old words will keep us watching Haiti: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Or us.

One Response to “Massive destruction and death are over there … this time”

  1. Teyah Says:

    God, I feel like I should be takin notes! Great work!