The human tragedy following the earthquake in Haiti is almost unimaginable for those who aren't there and have never experienced a disaster like this. People around the world have been quick to offer money and other forms of aid, and it has been the top news story for most of the last week. (An exception was when a major Australian media outlet pushed it out of the top news spot on their web site to tell us the extremely vital news that a moronic lout famous for nothing beyond his moronic loutishness was to become a film star, but tabloid journalism can be like that.)
Events like this can have benefits, however. The obvious one was alluded to above, the way that disasters make us all forget our other problems and differences for a while and work together to help total strangers who are worse off than we are. Other benefits are that they get us thinking about mortality and fate, and they give us an opportunity to be outraged and amused at the antics of idiots.
Let's start with the idiots.
It came as no surprise to many people that the execrable Fred Phelps from the Westboro Baptist Church (he's the God Hates Fags man who leads demonstrations at funerals) should blame the earthquake and death toll on the way that homosexuality in various parts of the world brings down the wrath of God to kill all sodomites and fag enablers. (Disclaimer: I participated in the 2009 Sydney Mardi Gras parade as the Pope, so I am an officially Phelps-endorsed fag enabler.)
Hot on Fred's heels and getting much more publicity was televangelist Pat Robertson, who blamed the earthquake on God's reaction to Haiti's acceptance of Satan and the practice of voodoo. For some reason he didn't make an issue out of the fact that the Dominican Republic, which occupies the other two thirds of the island that Haiti is on, is a Christian country and was therefore saved from devastation. Perhaps this could be because the Dominican Republic is overwhelmingly Catholic and I don't think that Pat includes Catholicism in Christianity. Robertson was supported by the rabid fringe of right-wing radio ranters, who not only agreed that the earthquake was God punishing people but hinted that Barack Obama was probably somehow to blame as well.
The anti-medicine folk didn't want to be left out of the ridicule, and their contribution was to look for charities and aid organisations who did not distribute drugs or encourage vaccination. The bald fact is that apart from emergency accommodation and food, the most pressing need in situations like this is for medical supplies to treat and manage the wounded. Rebuilding the place can wait until the lives have been saved. I wrote to someone campaigning against medical aid to ask for suggested alternatives to the anaesthetics, antiseptics, antibiotics and pain killers that the surgeons and doctors on the ground are calling out for, but I didn't get a reply.
I might be accused of apostasy for this, but I had a similar reaction when I was told that an appeal was being run to collect money from atheists and non-believers to demonstrate that you don't need religious belief to have compassion. Nice concept, although I didn't really see the need for this, but I was a bit annoyed when I heard that the money would only go to aid organisations that did not have any religious affiliation. I can't see how this thinking is any different from "don't give money for drugs". I don't care who gets my money as long as it is used to help the earthquake victims.
The best idiocy I have come across, however, is a classic conspiracy. I have no doubt that there are loons out there who will claim that the earthquake was deliberately engineered by the New World Order using secret technology being developed for world domination. (If nobody has actually thought of this yet, feel free to distribute it. We lizard folk at the Illuminati would like the publicity.) The story I came across was about the involvement of the US military. Now, to thinking folk, using the military in operations like this makes sense because they are well-disciplined organisations with skills and training in quickly establishing order, infrastructure and logistics. Not so in this case I have been told. The objective here is for the US to retake possession of Haiti. "But", I hear you ask, "Haiti has no oil or other resources. Why does the US want it?". What it wants is the population. The objective is to get all the young men in Haiti to join the US army so they can be used as cannon fodder in Iraq, Afghanistan and, presumably as it is close by, in any planned invasion of Cuba. Apparently many millions of Haiti's youth will rush to sign up to die for the USA as soon as the earthquake rubble has been cleared away.
On the more serious side, natural disasters always bring out those who have the need to rationalise the destruction with their belief in a just and benevolent god. It of course also brings out the militant atheists who claim that events like this disprove the existence of any gods. (In a moment of bizarrity, someone tried to tell me that claiming a natural event as proof that god doesn't exist proves that the claimant must believe in god because you can't deny the existence of something that you don't believe exists. No, I didn't understand the logic either.) Theologians and religious leaders have been having a lot to say, but as far as I am concerned the matter was settled by Voltaire's "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster", written in 1765 following the 1755 earthquake that killed about as many people in Lisbon as died in Haiti last week. Arguing about whether an earthquake was the work of an incompetent god who couldn't prevent it or a malicious god who caused it is about as useless as the famous argument about angels dancing on pinheads. I'm the sort of atheist who doesn't care either way. It happened, geologists can tell us why, so let's get on with the cleanup.
My final word will however address a matter of religion. It annoys me intensely when I hear the word "miracle" used when someone has been rescued from the rubble by the dedicated work of people selflessly putting themselves in danger, as if some deity did the work and took the risk. Any god who kills 100,000 people so that he can claim glory for keeping a survivor alive for a week isn't the sort of god I need to believe in.
And my final recommendation - give your money to the Red Cross or Medicines san Frontieres. That way you can be reasonably certain that it will end up doing the most good.
A version of this article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on January 19, 2010