The New Republic Online (subscription required) is up with two articles that help make the case that the East Asian tsunami is, among other things, an enormous blank slate onto which you can project the ideology of your choice.
Peter Beinart writes that conservatives are silent about it -- except when it gives them the opportunity to talk about the value of American power-projection. This, he says, isn't the same thing as international engagement. He makes the case for right-wing isolationism:
Almost entirely absent from conservative commentary has been any discussion of how the tsunami will affect South and Southeast Asia. Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, is emerging from decades of military rule. Now its military is overseeing disaster relief in the very region where, a month ago, it was putting down an armed rebellion. In the months before the tsunami, Muslim-Buddhist violence in Thailand had been threatening to spiral out of control. Sri Lanka has a religiously and ethnically based civil war as well. For all three fragile democracies, the tsunami's social and political consequences will likely prove profound. The newspapers have devoted considerable space to those consequences. Why don't conservatives seem to care?
Because the tsunami has uncovered a dirty little secret about the right today: Conservatives are fascinated by American power, but they are not all that interested in the world...
True internationalism means taking an interest in events overseas even when they don't bear directly on the war on terrorism; when they are not easily amenable to American power. It means being interested in the world, at least partly, merely because we live in it. By that standard, the isolationism of the '90s remains alive and well.
In another piece, Daniel Sarewitz and Roger A. Pielke, Jr., professors, respectively, of science and society at Arizona State, and of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, warn that environmentalist true believers are trying to link the tsunami and other natural disasters to global warming, in a way that will harm efforts to address global warming:
Those who justify the need for greenhouse gas reductions by exploiting the mounting human and economic toll of natural disasters worldwide are either ill-informed or dishonest. This is not, as Britain's Sir David King suggested, "something we can manage" by decreasing our use of fossil fuels. Prescribing emissions reductions to forestall the future effects of disasters is like telling someone who is sedentary, obese, and alcoholic that the best way to improve his health is to wear a seat belt.
In principle, fruitful action on both climate change and disasters should proceed simultaneously. In practice, this will not happen until the issues of climate change and disaster vulnerability are clearly separated in the eyes of the media, the public, environmental activists, scientists, and policymakers. As long as people think that global warming = worse hurricanes, global warming will also equal less preparation. And disasters will claim ever more money and lives.
Elsewhere, Richard Posner and Gary Becker take a heroic stand in favor of rational planning for low-probability/high cost disasters, but they're pessimistic about our ability to plan:
There are a number of reasons for such neglect. First, although a once-in-a-century event is as likely to occur at the beginning of the century as at any other time, it is much less likely to occur in the first decade of the century than later. Politicians with limited terms of office and thus foreshortened political horizons are likely to discount low-risk disaster possibilities, since the risk of damage to their careers from failing to take precautionary measures is truncated. Second, to the extent that effective precautions require governmental action, the fact that government is a centralized system of control makes it difficult for officials to respond to the full spectrum of possible risks against which cost-justified measures might be taken. The officials, given the variety of matters to which they must attend, are likely to have a high threshold of attention below which risks are simply ignored. Third, where risks are regional or global rather than local, many national governments, especially in the poorer and smaller countries, may drag their heels in the hope of taking a free ride on the larger and richer countries. Knowing this, the latter countries may be reluctant to take precautionary measures and by doing so reward and thus encourage free riding. Fourth, countries are poor often because of weak, inefficient, or corrupt government, characteristics that may disable poor nations from taking cost-justified precautions. Fifth, people have difficulty thinking in terms of probabilities, especially very low probabilities, which they tend therefore to write off. This weakens political support for incurring the costs of taking precautionary measures against low-probability disasters.
The emphasis on the last point is mine. It stands out for me because it supports my fatalism about exactly the question at hand. Bottom line: we're imaginative, symbolizing animals -- except in those cases where it would do us the most good. After the fact, imaginations run wild -- the tsunami is an example of god's anger, or global warming, or the value of American power, or the failure of American engagement... All of these issues are important, and in themselves they're worth debating. So the fact that we're myth-driven isn't necessarily bad -- not if it leads to issues debates and policy changes.
But wouldn't it be better if we could harness those same qualities to the harder task of anticipating, and and maybe even mitigating, the next Enormous, Metaphoric Bad Thing?