No Holds Barred: Haitian apocalypse and a bold new world

As I watched the world coalesce around the disaster, the paradox of achieving the ancient messianic vision of global unity only through tragedy began to gnaw at me.

February 9, 2010 22:34
No Holds Barred: Haitian apocalypse  and a bold new world

boteach 66. (photo credit: )


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Nothing can prepare you for Port-au-Prince. Not watching the devastation on CNN for a week. Not viewing a Time magazine photo montage of blue-tinged bodies in rigor mortis. Nothing.

Perhaps the only thing that prepared me were grainy black-and-white photographs I had seen of Berlin and Tokyo in the summer of 1945 – cities reduced to endless stretches of rubble. Port-au-Prince looks like it was bombed mercilessly from the air.

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It hits you slowly. As you make the long drive from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and cross the border into Haiti, you first think to yourself, “Thank goodness, the earthquake wasn’t nearly as bad as described.” We saw a few homes that had collapsed on the outskirts of the city and heard the tragic story of a grandmother who had been crushed under a collapsed roof. But 300,000 dead? The estimates had to be exaggerated.

Then you get nearer and the tent and squatter cities of the endless number of homeless, sitting outside their makeshift abodes with little to do, begins to hit you.

But only when you get into the very heart of the city, ground zero of the quake’s devastation, does a world of pure destruction open before you. One of  every two buildings collapsed like pancakes, creating giant tombs in the city’s heart. The stench of death, inescapable, is all around you. No one will ever know how many are buried inside these mountains of wreckage. It took ancient Rome hundreds of years to become a city of ruins. But Mother Nature accomplished the task in Haiti in a matter of seconds.

As you drive through the downtown, what makes the scene even more macabre are the hundreds of people who walk through the rubble, and the cars which traverse the devastation, seemingly barely cognizant of the apocalypse all around them. Barely a store is open. The electricity is long gone. But they walk through, determined, as if the heart of the city still beats.

The airport (if you can call it that) has vast quantities of supplies strewn about, bubble-wrapped and waiting to be distributed.

The UN compound – a blizzard of white vehicles with the dark black “UN” letters adorning them – is nearby. Every country seems to be represented, and one can hear people speaking numerous languages. Never have I witnessed such an extensive relief effort. I was greeted warmly by soldiers from many nations, from the Brazilians who bought groceries next to me, to the Indians who smiled when I waved, to the Italians who fought to maneuver their giant convoy through the traffic-clogged streets, to the Peruvians who tried to clear a way for them to pass.

And everywhere – dominating air, sea and land – are the Americans.

From the airport field hospital operated by the sleep-deprived heroes of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, to the awesome site of air force Ospreys rising vertically and then taking horizontal flight, to the giant C-130 transports landing and making the earth shake, to the prefabricate American homes passing through the streets, with smiling soldiers atop, the American people are providing the lion’s share of relief.

I CAME to Haiti with my friend Glen Megill of the Christian humanitarian organization, Rock of Africa, and my eldest daughter Mushki. Last Thanksgiving, we visited Zimbabwe to distribute corn seed and mosquito nets, and now we were in Haiti to visit an orphanage. I came directly from broadcasting a radio show at the Super Bowl in Miami and then watching the game with my family, following a nephew’s bar mitzva.

A different side of America was on display this past weekend in South Florida. Saints fans turned Ocean Drive into the French Quarter’s Bourbon Street: all-party-all-the-time. A country whose biggest cultural event of the year is a bunch of enormous guys hitting each other as hard as their muscles would allow. I am a huge football fan, but the way in which the Super Bowl dominates the American television landscape instead of, say, the debate over health care, is a little difficult to comprehend. But make no mistake about it. This is nation that plays hard but knows when it’s time to get serious.

And as I watched the world coalesce around the tragedy of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, the paradox of achieving the ancient messianic vision of global unity only through tragedy and sport began to gnaw at me. The only time I had ever seen so many people of so many different nationalities coming together in such harmony was at the Olympics I had witnessed in Barcelona, Lillehammer and Salt Lake City.

The UN, a body that has long disgraced itself by its hatred of Israel and its defense of Arab dictators, is doing an awe-inspiring job. Haiti has also seen the near-universal praise of Israel as a country of unparalleled humanitarian commitment, with Wyclef Jean, arguably Haiti’s biggest celebrity and the global face of the Haitian humanitarian effort, telling me on my radio show that the Israelis outshone every other nationality in their expert professionalism and the number of lives they saved.

Is it only in moments of competitiveness and tragedy that the world can rally together as one family? Is it only through catastrophic death that the world can learn the value of life? Can we rally together only in adversarial conditions, or when we are in terrible pain?

Perhaps in a world so deeply fractured, we should be grateful for whatever unity we can get.

I leave Haiti feeling overwhelming grief for the devastation experienced by its inhabitants, a profound respect for their courage and how little they complain, and in awe of the human capacity to draw together to help those in need.

The writer is the founder of This World: The Values Network. His upcoming book, Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Lived Life will be published in April by Basic Books.

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