Ramblings on earthquakes as “punishment” and the rescue of survivors as “miracles”

For nearly a week now I have been watching the tragedy caused by the earthquake and tsunami unfold in Japan. I have also been following the incredible human tales of suffering, heroism, fear-mongering, and apathy widely reported in its aftermath.

Some experts have loudly proclaimed that the destruction is punishment for some grave “sin” that the Japanese committed. The American media “pundit” Glenn Beck implied that the earthquake was a message from God to follow the Ten Commandments. On the other hand, Tokyo’s governor, Shintaro Ishihara called the earthquake “divine punishment” for the “egoism” of the Japanese people. Although the governor later apologized for his insensitive comment, one thing is clear: as humans, we are such a ridiculously conceited species that every natural disaster has to be a result of something we did or did not do in our insignificant lives.

Soon after the earthquake and tsunami, reports began to come in about “miracles” – lives that had been saved in the midst of overwhelming death: a four-month old baby clinging on to dear life, a 70-year old woman nearly freezing inside her home for four days, a 60-year old man found ten miles out at sea clinging to his rooftop for two days.

In a country of 127 million, when roughly 13,000 or 0.01% of the population perishes it is called “punishment”. When 1 out 13,000, or roughly 0.01% of the dead survives, it is called a “miracle.”

Why is one punishment? Why is the other a miracle?

Why of course, don’t I know! Death is punishment. Life is a miracle. Plain and simple.

Today on television I saw haunting images of a man who just stood there wearing a hard-hat, dumbfounded in the midst of absolute destruction. At the time of the earthquake and tsunami, the man was not at his home: by some stroke of luck, he was at the fire station, although he was not supposed to be there. His wife, son, daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren were at his small home in the town. They were in a home which had now been completely reduced to rubble. The man wandered around refusing to believe that his entire family lay in front of him in a stony grave. Then while the cameras were still rolling, it struck him.

“I can’t take it. I lost everything. Why did I go to the fire station?” he sobbed inconsolably. Even from the comfort of my living room thousands of miles away, I could not meet his gaze or offer myself an answer. Here was a man who wished he had been dead.

Now, my dear friend, tell me with your certitude what “miracle” saved this man? What “sin” condemned his grandchildren?


8 thoughts on “Ramblings on earthquakes as “punishment” and the rescue of survivors as “miracles”

  1. Unfortunately, to whatever little degree I have known about the Japanese disaster, it’s largely been about the “impending” nuclear disaster. Thanks to your post I also got sensitized to the human side of the disaster.

    Your last paragraph about the old man’s wish to die might have been lateral thinking of sorts to some, but I could entirely empathize with him.

    1. I think part of the tragedy is the laser-like focus on sensationalizing the nuclear fallout. There are over 300,000 people in shelters and tens of thousands who have perished or are unaccounted for.

      The human side is one which the news channels are not showing. The view is of large waves crashing through towns in a cinematic fashion and washing away boats, bridges, and cars. After the disaster, most shots show complete devastation but usually through aerial shots.

      As far as the exercise of writing is concerned, I agree with you: my purpose is to provoke alternative responses to the popular “right” one.

  2. These are existential questions that get thrown up whenever a massive disaster takes place. The tragedy is always measured in terms of human impact.

    Disasters really shake you up. I was in Rajkot the day the Bhuj earthquake happened. It was a proper earthquake in Rajkot – not just tremors. Many years later, when I was living in Ahmedabad, I also experienced tremors – didnt compare to the previous exp in intensity – but it shakes you up. Since then I would never lock my door when I slept – so I could escape if an earthquake happened. I always kept a small bag with some money, change of clothes and my documents near the door – so I could grab it when I ran. I did it every night. Call I taking precautions or phobia.

    1. Well we all have our superstitions. Even the most rational people can be made to believe there are more to coincidences than meets the eye.

      Thanks for sharing your experience and I’m glad to hear you survived unscathed.

  3. I would say this is one of those atheism vs pessimism debates. Religion teaches us that life is a miracle, and also that natural calamities are god’s way of punishing people.

  4. When I was a kid I lived in Utah, and the Boy Scouts was taken over by Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS Church). This, so called religion, practices underage polygamy, they send the boy s off on missions to divide the underage sisters among the dirty old men of the clan. Now when these underage girls get pregnant, these same dirty old men, send them to the state to get their welfare checks . You should see some of the palace homes that are paid with welfare checks (not on just one of course). By the way this is the newest religion that was created right here in United States of America, I guess their also in AZ, CA, NM, TX, NV, CO, OK. When someone hides behind religion to do or say something that is wrong we should stand up and point it out (right the wrong). Someone should ask Glenn Beck about it, he seems to have all the answers.

  5. Those grandchildren are collateral damages. God wanted to kill a couple of hundred healthy male Japs.
    Honestly, Gaddafi is also to be blamed.

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