By JAMES P. PINKERTON
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
The death toll from the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, while enormous, is far from the largest by historical standards. Yet the political impact will be huge, because publics around the world today demand accountability for every fatality.
In the past, people could do little more than weep after catastrophes. They were called "Acts of God," and there wasn't much to be done about them, except maybe pray harder, in hopes of avoiding future wrath from the divine.
But in the last century or so, science has provided a better understanding of calamities, and politics have become more transparent. People have come to feel more in control of their own destiny, and so they expect their political leaders to exercise more responsibility.
The 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, for example, killed up to 3,000 people. Instead of simply shrugging, authorities went to work, upgrading building codes and fire-safety procedures. So the lives lost were not in vain; governments could not outlaw earthquakes, but they could mandate quake-safer buildings. Indeed, the subsequent growth of the Golden State is a tribute to successful regulation and architectural adaptation.
By contrast, another earthquake highlighted the failures of another government -- a government that soon fell like so many loose bricks. In 1972, a quake struck Managua, Nicaragua, killing thousands. But the regime of dictator Anastasio Somoza proved to be both incompetent and corrupt in channeling emergency relief. Somoza thought he was immune from popular pressure -- but he thought wrong. His arrogance fed popular opposition to his regime, and he was overthrown a few years later.
Thus the lesson: people, enlightened by greater understanding and empowered by the media, expect their leaders to do something when disaster strikes. If the leaders fail to do so, then people will get themselves new leaders.
So now to the tsunami. Not long after the last killer wave receded, politics rushed in. People in the affected countries asked, "Why weren't quake sensors in place?" And that was a good question. After all, the United States started monitoring Pacific Ocean quakes, with an eye toward public safety, way back in 1949.
Why hadn't countries along the Indian Ocean been similarly vigilant? Why did Thailand, to pick one tragic example, neglect the safety of its population? Thailand is not quite a free and democratic country, but the magnitude of the disaster has emboldened the normally docile press to ask probing Watergate-y questions: What did the government know, and when did it know it?
The answers so far have not been flattering to the government. The Bangkok Post quoted one former official as saying that authorities had "up to an hour to announce the emergency message and evacuate people, but they failed to do so." Will the Thai government be changed as a result of this alleged mismanagement? Maybe not. But definitely, that government will change its ways.
Other tough questions, too, will be asked in a dozen countries. How effective was the immediate disaster relief? How about public health in the aftermath? Even governments used to being unaccountable are going to get lessons in accountability. Moreover, since the world is now an interconnected global village, we all feel conscience-bound -- or at least pressure-driven -- to be our brother's keeper.
Within hours of the disaster, Jan Egeland, the United Nations' Emergency Relief Coordinator, declared that the Western relief effort was "stingy." Surely Egeland's judgment was premature, but politicians know that it pays to be the firstest with mostest. So the French foreign minister, Michel Barnier, won the prize by being the first Western big shot to fly into the area with a plane full of aid.
Other policy debates, too, will soon rise on the world agenda. Here's the headline in Tuesday's edition of The Hindustan Times: "Global warming, pollution add to coastal threats." True or not, those claims are now also part of the political discussion. This is the new reality of media-magnified disaster: No matter how big the event, the political impact will be bigger.
X Pinkerton is a Newsday columnist. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service