We can pray, if prayer is part of our lives, and we can of course send money, each of us hoping to increase by a little the ability of the rich countries to help Southeast Asia survive the calamitous rising in the Indian Ocean.
But can we who have spent this holiday season away from the thundering waves, in safe places we usually take for granted but may now consider precious, do anything else in response to the worst natural disaster we have ever watched on television? Must we be satisfied with submitting, in all humility, to the merciless and inexplicable power of nature?
There's not a theologian on Earth who could give a persuasive explanation of this tragedy. But if there's no way of explaining what it means in religious terms, is there a way we can give it geopolitical meaning? Can we seize upon it as an opportunity to shape the future?
All those within range of 24-hour television news have been living together through these painful days. This makes the tsunami a unique event in history. There have been other disasters on this scale or worse, even in the last 35 years. For instance, an earthquake in China killed 242,000 in 1976. But most calamities this huge happened in an earlier historic period, when communications were relatively limited and we knew less of the daily affairs in far-off corners of the planet.
We are all closer now, a point that George W. Bush emphasized on Saturday when he ordered that flags at U.S. public buildings and military installations be flown at half-staff for five days, beginning today. Has that ever before been done, by the Americans or anyone else, because of something that happened on the other side of the globe? The Indian Ocean earthquake evokes a fresh sense of human connectedness. There's no mystery about the reason: It has occurred in the era of unrelenting coverage, the period that began with the birth of CNN in 1980.
Since then, TV news networks have spread an extra skin of awareness around the world. The result is that we are involved as never before with distant heartbreak, irresistibly caught up in the wretchedness of those we have never known in places most of us have never visited, sometimes places whose names we have never heard. Never before in history has so much misery been instantly displayed before so many.
In the pre-1980 world, natural disasters came to us as packaged and organized news events, bulletins from a far distance, roughly in the same way they might have reached our grandparents. The terrible news of Boxing Day, on the other hand, arrived among us minute by minute, in a soul-shaking chaos of images so pitiful that they can leave no one unmoved.
This tragic holiday season has renewed the meaning of John Donne's 17th-century words: ''No man is an island, Each man's death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind.'' He said it; we have absorbed it through our eyes, in a way no one before us could have imagined.
During this desolate time we may be able to find something of value. Our most hopeful response will involve framing this event not as an affliction of strangers but as an event in the life of the whole world, an event that could alter the way we live together.
Certainly it will encourage severe self-criticism, in Canada as much as anywhere. For more than 30 years we have allowed Canadian military forces, including transport aircraft, to decline to such a level that we are unable, however good-hearted our intentions, to make much more than a token response to the desperate needs of Asia. No politician, Liberal or Conservative, deserves all of the blame; the Canadian people, including journalists, have been lazily complicit. If we are now slow to move in response to pressing needs, if we are ineffective at a moment when we passionately yearn to be nimble and expert, all of us are guilty. Surely our severe limitations as an aid-giver, revealed so pathetically since Dec. 26, will add to the urgency of the military review under way in Ottawa this winter.
But the tsunami could have a much larger effect. It could change geopolitical relations in the world by creating a new relationship between the Muslim world and the West, above all the Americans. Overwhelmingly, the victims are Muslim. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, has suffered far more than any other country.
The tsunami gives the West a chance to change attitudes among Muslims. We need to exercise a selfless moral imagination backed by all the resources of governments and corporations. Morton Abramowitz, who was U.S. ambassador in Thailand before helping found the International Crisis Group (which tries to prepare governments for unexpected traumas like this one), said the other day that this catastrophe can be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate that terrorism doesn't erase everything else. There are other forces playing over human events, with even more power.
Bush argues passionately that democracy and free trade will work better than any other system for all countries, poor as well as rich. He's right, but democratic ideas are viewed with well-grounded skepticism in poor countries. What little the wretched of the Earth know about democracy and capitalism has not won their hearts. Bush (and all who collaborate with him, including Canada) now have the chance to prove what effective democracy can accomplish. The annual American contribution to disaster relief, US$2.4-billion, is by far the world's largest, and proportionately more than any other country's. This is a fact normally muffled by the boredom of congressional budgets. The rescue operations of early 2005 could be a way of making it known, as it deserves to be.
Given the world's experience with foreign aid, those who want to help will prudently bear in mind the possibility of failure or worse.
Corruption, which will have years to take root, could destroy whatever good the aid creates. Anti-American and anti-Western ideologues could blame every misstep on the Satanic nature of modernity. Like all great projects, bringing the afflicted regions back to life will involve risks.
Moreover, helping the survivors and rebuilding their communities will require relentless long-term effort as well as money; it will take all the West's powers of organization. But maybe, in the midst of this enterprise, hard work and dedication can bind former enemies together.
Perhaps in the end we will thank television for intensifying our awareness of faraway distress. In any case, the West and its institutions will be on trial, in our own eyes as in the eyes of the world.