If the images of the tsunami destruction in South Asia and East Africa two months ago were a shock to the senses, the pictures this week of two former presidents of the world's most powerful nation touring ground zero were a stark reminder of mankind's vulnerability.
George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who, as presidents of the United States, had the ability to change the course of world history through the use of the nation's military might or merely by issuing a public pronouncement, were visibly shaken by the heart-wrenching stories of the survivors and the barren landscapes that once were vibrant communities.
"I've never seen anything like this in my entire life. Ever," said Bush.
The official tsunami death toll ranges from 169,070 to 178,118, and the number of missing is believed to be as high as 128,426. Many of those are presumed dead.
"It's hard to imagine those numbers until you see the level of devastation," said Clinton. "The first thing I thought was, 'Well, at least now I understand. I understand how they all died. I understand why they couldn't get away. And then, when we were flying over Banda Aceh, I was struck by how the devastation was total and then more limited, and you'd come into a street, and everything would be normal again. It's almost impossible to appreciate the scope of this if you haven't physically seen it."
The visit by the two former presidents to Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, countries which took the brunt of the Dec. 26 tsunami, returned the story of this epic natural disaster that affected 11 nations in South Asia and East Africa to the front pages and network nightly news. The timing could not have been more fortuitous. While the world has responded with financial and other aid -- total private and government commitments total $7 billion -- the passage of time has seen a lessening of public attention, if not concern.
Indeed, the world press is now aflutter over the impending marriage of Britain's Prince Charles to his long-time companion Camilla Parker Bowles, and the fact that Queen Elizabeth II won't be attending the civil ceremony in the town hall in Windsor. To give this fluff story some substance, journalists have sought out constitutional experts to discuss the ramifications of Charles, a divorcee, being able to the serve as the head of the Church of England when he becomes king.
But despite the ponderous spinning, the fact remains that the Charles-Camilla soap opera does not deserve the attention it is getting -- not when one third of the victims of the tsunami were children, and not when hundreds of thousands are still without adequate shelter, safe drinking water and food.
Former presidents Bush and Clinton made it clear that while Americans have been extremely generous in sending money and other aid to all 11 countries, much more must be done. Clinton estimated that an addition $4 billion is needed to help the survivors put their lives back together.
Private donors worldwide are estimated to have given over $2 billion so far in relief aid. Half the private U.S. donations for tsunami relief has been channeled via the Internet.
Indeed, in a television commercial urging continued support for the relief effort, Bush and Clinton provide the following Internet address: www.usafreedomcorps.gov.
The two leaders touched our hearts by their visit to ground zero. We need to respond.