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Higher Authority: On Powerlessness and Fate

by Jorg Lau Saturday, Feb. 12, 2005 at 7:27 AM

The egalitarian brutality of this natural disaster that wiped out fishing villages and exclusive beach resorts at the same time emphasized the inequality and injustice of world society with all its moral paradoxes.


An Ancient Question of Humanity Returns after the Tsunami and the Terror Attacks of the Last Years: Are We Powerless in Relation to Fate?

By Jorg Lau

[This article originally published in: DIE ZEIT, January 2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.zeit.de/2005/03/Titel_2fSchicksal_03.]

People are thankful when the un-charismatic 58-year old official Klaus Scharioth appears on the screen. This has to do with the professionalism radiated by Scharioth. He doesn’t evade any question and admits mistakes and failures. He doesn’t play with the feelings of people, not even for a good goal. Instinctively one reaches for old-fashioned words – cultivation of the heart or tactfulness – to describe the objective style of his appearance. The secret of the astonishing popularity of Klaus Scharioth is that he radiates a feeling for the vulnerability that we experienced through the tsunami. The soothing sober and shaken broadcaster is the real face of our vulnerability. Behind the numbers announced by Scharioth are the faces of a fate blind with rage that shatters some and makes others run away. What happens with us spared persons when exposed to these faces for weeks?

There is the father untiringly seeking his wife and two daughters because he cannot accept the disappearance of his family. He tells a reporter: “The children were the best in their class.” This fact makes his undeserved tragedy concrete. This is obviously absurd. Still the echo of pain arising in waves through the senselessness of innocent death can be heard in his desperate lament.

Another father of a family, the Austrian author Josef Haslinger, barely survived with his wife and two children and saw many others die. He describes his perplexity in the face of “absolutely senseless death” to a reporter: “We are not prepared for these situations. We have not experienced war or comparable catastrophes. We have not learned to deal with this form of the end, with the dead and mutilated before our eyes. Only in film did we have the experience that the ostensible paradise – sand, sun and ocean – changed in no time into hell. In reality, this leaves us helpless.”

The children of post-war time – Haslinger is 49 years old – have had no experience with blows of fate of this magnitude. However one emergency after another has chased him for years: war and genocide in Europe from Bosnia to Kosovo, epidemics from mad cow disease to SARS, apocalyptic terrorist strikes – and now the disastrous tsunami.

The others, the generation of parents and grandparents, had a striking fate. This fate was often hard to bear when the seniors came again and again with memories of their grievous lot. “Schicksal” (“fate”) was one of those deep German words full of gravity and darkness. In its beginning, post-war Germany was a “community of fate” as the conservative Helmut Schelsky wrote, marked by the search for debris, military bread, silent endurance, grim determination in reconstruction and false sentimentality.


For a long while, the young sought to ignore this German fate. However for some time there has been a new objective interest in German fates of the war- and post-war time. The demand for books, films and journals about bomb victims, expellees, war prisoners and late returnees from prisoner-of-war camps does not diminish but increases with the distance to the events. There is undoubtedly a danger of a transfigured narcissistic occupation with German suffering. However the overwhelming readiness of Germans for donations in the present disaster proves that remembrance of the grievous fate of the German people need not become dulled but can be open to the suffering of others. The 60th anniversary of the war’s end in May 2005 will doubtlessly bring a new peak of the remembrance boom…

The term fate is a great leveler. Fate puts natural disasters and crimes against humanity on an equal level. In fate, natural and moral evil are apprehended only in relation to the experience of the afflicted subject. Tsunamis, epidemics, terrorist attacks and wars can be seen as blows of fate. This is politically dangerous since it can lead to fatalism or apocalyptic hysteria. Whoever warns of natural horrors and seeks to prevent man-made horrors must almost forbid the perspective of the fateful.

A comeback of fate is possible. The feeling of vulnerability spreading today cannot be understood without some concept open to existential distresses and yet bereft of immediate repair proposals and interpretation suggestions. One needs a sense for the unavoidable, for the secret feeling that something dark and inscrutable still exists in the world that evades our control.

We see the tsunami on the backdrop of other events that encouraged our more fragile passion for life for years. On one side there was the series of terrorist attacks from the World Trade Center to Djerba and Madrid to Beslan. On the other side, there are the epidemics and catastrophes from SARS and the tsunami to the dreaded “killer-viruses” about which we are now warned while still coping with the after-effects of the earthquake.

Learning to keep these two series separate – separating natural evil from man-made evil – was once the pride of the enlightened age. The world was less sinister and God was relieved of responsibility for evil. From then on, one could continue believing in God and spare God the vexing questions about famines and earthquakes. Disasters were morally emptied, so to speak, by naturalizing them through scientific explanations. Now they are no longer punishments of a mysterious angry God but cases for statistics – regrettable events calling for technical solutions and an attitude of humane resignation if there is no solution. Interpreting catastrophes is no longer crucial but adjusting life to them in the right mix of technical pragmatism, human solidarity and philosophical stoicism.

To this day we have no good alternatives to this coping strategy developed by leading thinkers after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Its soothing effect in view of the latest danger functions less and less. Our present-day sense of threat shows that the neat distinction of human and natural evil is blurred from both sides. Evil is added up instead of differentiated.

The new terrorism – with its past summits in September 11 and Beslan – no longer involves a liberation struggle even if the offenders pretend this. Its assassinations, as the philosopher Susan Neiman recognized, “imitate the arbitrary blows of nature”. The deaths of the “innocent” are accepted as the Spiegel reporters’ reconstruction of the Beslan school massacre demonstrated. To the question why he didn’t let the children go, one of the abductors said: “You don’t have to understand; it was enough that they died.” Who would not shrink back from killing himself and dragging children to their deaths, apart from basic human trust and the presupposition of all civilized cooperative life? The strategy of this apocalyptic terrorism consists in “surpassing what is most “insidious in nature”, Susan Neiman says, to spread worldwide panic.


From the other side, our distinction of natural and man-made evil comes under pressure. While epidemics are biological facts, their spread depends on human conduct and political management as mad cow disease (BSE) and SARS have shown. The man-made climate change interacts with natural climate fluctuations and natural disasters that we could not completely understand and control for a long time. The tsunami whose origin can be geologically explained unfolds its whole horror on account of certain settlement- and travel patterns in the globalized world. Most people regard it as a senseless and accidental event. Its effects cast a light on our organization of the world. The egalitarian brutality of this natural disaster that wiped out fishing villages and exclusive beach resorts at the same time emphasized all the more strongly the inequality and injustice of world society with all its moral paradoxes.

Unexpected experiences with the fractures and moral traps of the “one world” will be made very soon. Since western assistance – like the well-meaning proposal of debt cancellation – was rejected by some countries because it endangered the precarious economic freedom of these countries even if they now appear needy. Europeans must note a clear practical superiority of Americans in humanitarian matters that painfully has the same origin as the unrivaled destructive power of the American military. Even the disgust in view of the pictures of beer drinkers on the beach a few days after the destruction only led at the end to a moral dilemma. Local people depend on that vacationer for rebuilding. This can wash off their scruples.


Terror imitates the destructive force of nature while the natural disaster becomes a world-political “revelation” as the French culture critic Paul Virilio says. Both types of events nourish a vague sense of vulnerability toward blows of fate. This feeling seeks a productive way out in readiness for donations. However the donation flood is not a substitute but a part payment for the “world domestic policy” talked about so much today. The catastrophe teaches us that in the past we did not have anything deserving this pretentious name. The generosity of the donors toward the flood victims is also an indicator of their overwhelming sense of powerlessness that they counter with their gifts. Naturally we do not criticize this response to distress.

God knows there are hardly helpful reactions. For most people, catastrophes are bad news. Some self-appointed enlightened ones can hardly hide their satisfaction. The evangelical fanatics in the US who see the tsunami as “birth-pangs” of the end time “in a positive way” (www.raptureready.com) seem to rival the madness the TV sheiks of the Arab world who welcomed it as just punishment for the Babylonian conditions in Bangkok because there is massive “Zionist and American investment” there and “Muslims can be forced to prostitution” (www.memri.org).

Bad news is good news not only for the inspired with their salvation certainty and their conspiracy theories. The tsunami also complies with the devil-may-care attitude and catastrophe nihilism heard in the commentaries of columnist Franz Josef Wagner, the ventriloquist of public feeling. In view of this force of nature, Wagner broods, the green sustainability agenda looks somewhat silly with its windmills and wind turbines. The tsunami becomes a welcome opportunity to be free from economical association with resources. When nature strikes this way, then we will immediately no longer separate our waste! The catastrophe terrorism represents a serious temptation for the delight in political regression. If the Tschetchnians fight their battle as in Beslan, why should be still feel obligated to criticize Putin for Grosnyl’s destruction?

Defending reason today is not for people with sensitive stomachs. The heroes of these days sit in crisis management groups and try to anticipate the murderous fantasy of terrorists and the brutal indifference of nature. Like the struggle against terrorism, the battle against natural catastrophes challenges the imagination of dread. For our well-being, the experts must attempt to surpass the last horror. They must be ready to imagine those things that run counter to moral common sense and our childlike faith in a kind nature. For them, raising questions like these is a command of prudence. How many millions of lives will the union of killer-viruses claim? What will be the next stage after the murder of children? That our security depends on these reflections is a disconcerting thought.

At the moment there are many indications that Paul Virilio struck a sore point of political thought. “The decisive political impulses will not start from revolutions but from catastrophes that reveal a completely new situation.” Our uncomfortable task is not to become apocalypticists or nihilists in view of this “revelation”.

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