Niall Ferguson: Looking for a Scapegoat for Katrina





[Niall Ferguson is Professor of History at Harvard.]

Disasters happen. Two hundred and fifty years ago, on November 1, 1755, the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, was flattened by an earthquake that killed thousands of its inhabitants. Like the hurricane that inundated New Orleans last week, the calamity inspired not only awe at the power of nature and sympathy for the helpless victims, but also all kinds of moral commentary. None was more profound than that of the French philosopher Voltaire.

To Voltaire, the destruction of Lisbon was proof that we do not live "in the best of all possible worlds" - a philosophical position associated with Gottfried Leibniz, but most pithily expressed in Alexander Pope's Essay on Man: Whatever is, is right. According to Leibniz, evil and suffering were integral parts of the order God had ordained. Though they might seem inexplicable to us, they were a vital part of the divine plan; the world would, paradoxically, be less perfect without them.

I wonder how many Southern preachers will venture that argument today, at a time when untold numbers of bodies are lying unburied in the streets of what used to be "the Big Easy", or floating in the toxic flood unleashed by Hurricane Katrina? Most, I suspect, will prefer to echo the prayer published by the United Church of Christ not long after the deluge: "Be present, O God, with those who are discovering that loved ones have died, that homes and jobs are gone. Embrace them in your everlasting arms.

"Be present, O God, with those who suffer today in shelters, hot and weary from too little sleep and too much fear. Let them know they are not alone."

No doubt those are appropriate things to be asking of God at a time like this, but they rather beg the question where He was when Katrina burst the levee walls. I must say I prefer clergymen who, like Leibniz, at least address the issue of why God allows such horrors to happen

Voltaire's answer was a classic statement of the atheist position. Disasters happen because there is no God. As he wrote to a friend, the Lisbon earthquake was "a cruel piece of natural philosophy! We shall find it difficult to discover how the laws of movement operate in such fearful disasters in the best of all possible worlds - where a hundred thousand ants, our neighbours, are crushed in a second on our ant-heaps-, half dying, undoubtedly in inexpressible agonies, beneath debris from which it was impossible to extricate them… What a game of chance human life is! ...

The old-time hellfire and brimstone reaction would have been to interpret the inundation, John Wesley style, as a judgment on the city that brazenly calls itself "Party Town". But few Christian Churches risk such strong moral medicine these days.

No such inhibitions constrain today's Islamic extremists. The Associated Press reported that they "rejoiced in America's misfortune, giving the storm a military rank and declaring in internet chatter that 'Private' Katrina had joined the global jihad. With God's help, they declared, oil prices would hit $100-a-barrel this year."

It would be hard to get more tasteless. Yet the same underlying impulse - to interpret the disaster as confirmation of one's own ideological position - was at work among many American liberals too. Opponents of the war in Iraq were not slow to point out that National Guardsmen who should have been on hand to rescue hurricane victims were instead failing to prevent lethal stampedes in far-away Baghdad. The usual suspects could not resist pointing out that most of the people trapped in the flooded city were poor African-Americans, who lacked the means to flee the hurricane.

And, inevitably, environmentalists rushed to portray the storm as retribution for the Bush administration's refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol....

The reality is, of course, that natural disasters have no moral significance....






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