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Missive #92

Tales of the Orient have inspired Westerners since the first hints of the fabulous East began to trickle back along the trade routes.

This is an interesting book but nothing like what Severin’s earlier books were. His first adventure books were about him participating in recreating historical adventures. This book is about other adventurers with him playing no part. It is not a story of exploration in the pioneering sense: the civilizations the visitors encountered were often older and wiser than their own. But the trail of Occidental traders, proselytes, missionaries, diplomats, surveyors, spies and eccentrics who penetrated the lands beyond the mysterious ‘Stone Tower’ – into India, Siberia, China and Southeast Asia – were discovering the Orient for themselves and interpreting what they saw through Western eyes for their compatriots.

In The Oriental Adventure, Timothy Severin gives a fascinating account of the procession of tenacious travellers from all over Europe who penetrated into Asia between the thirteenth and early twentieth centuries to investigate these rumours.

Thoughts on Large-Scale Tragedy II, or
Nature More Devastating Than Terrorism, and If So, Why Don’t We Act Like It?
By John Ross
Copyright 2005 by John Ross.  Electronic reproduction of this article freely permitted provided it is reproduced in its entirety with attribution given

Like the rest of the world, I’ve been watching the destruction of New Orleans with a mixture of horror and fascination.  Many people have questioned the wisdom of building homes in a coastal city that is eight or so feet below sea level.

        That’s a simplistic view.  The fact is that New Orleans is vital as a port for shipping.  And when a place is vital, people are going to work there, and that means they need a place to live, potential dangers or not. 

        The other fact is that the world itself is a dangerous place to live, when we try to civilize it.  The coasts are all subject to periodic tropical storms.  California has earthquakes and mudslides.  The entire west (and to a lesser degree, the rest of the country) is subject to forest fires.  The Midwest  has tornadoes, and here in Missouri, we’re waiting for a replay of the New Madrid Fault earthquake of almost 200 years ago that rang church bells 1000 miles away in Boston.

        1993 saw tremendous flooding along the Mississippi here where I live in St. Louis.  The town of Grafton, Illinois looked like a miniature of today’s New Orleans, minus the looters.

        You wouldn’t know it now.  Everything that was worth rebuilding was rebuilt within a year.  Everything that wasn’t worth rebuilding was bulldozed, the land sold to someone who had a plan for it, and now something good and solid is there.  Some people built in the same spot–on metal and concrete stilts.  Others built tall, aboveground “basements” designed to fill with water.  Some just rebuilt, and figured to play the odds.  Life goes on.

        My local newspaper ran a very interesting article discussing other natural disasters in the last 100 years or so, such as the Chicago Fire, the San Francisco Earthquake, the Johnstown Flood, and others, and what the aftermath was.  The interesting fact is that almost before the smoke had cleared, the wind died down, or the water receded, the rebuilding had begun.  Developers used the necessity of rebuilding to avoid the endless debates of “what should we do” that happen when city planners talk about a neighborhood that is crumbling but not demolished.  In all cases, the cities in question were bigger and more thriving a few years after the tragedy than immediately before.

        But that apparently doesn’t happen in America when the devastation is from a terrorist act.

        On April 19, 1995, a misguided social misfit decided to avenge the deaths of innocents at Waco by blowing up the Oklahoma City federal building and killing a bunch of secretaries and clerks.  (That’s one version.  The other is it was a botched ATF “sting” operation.  Take your pick.)  In any event, when I visited OKC a few years later, I was stunned when I visited the site.  The remains of the federal building had been removed, and a patch of grass put down with a chain link fence around it, amateurishly adorned with blurry Polaroids and other personal items of those killed in the blast.

        That was ALL that had been done!  The surrounding buildings that had all been damaged by the blast–windows shattered, roof tiles sheared off, walls cracked–were all in exactly the condition they’d been in the day after the blast.  I don’t know if they’d been condemned or not, but they all looked it and all were vacant.  That area immediately around the blast epicenter looked like a ghost town years after the attack.  To my knowledge it’s still that way.

        I might write this off to economic conditions in one medium-sized Midwestern city, except then the same thing happened four years ago when a bunch of Muslims took advantage of our own absurd victim disarmament policies and managed to knock the World Trade Center towers down with a pair of commandeered jetliners.  Four years after that tragedy, there’s nothing built on the spot.  Nothing.

        Is not the death toll and property loss in the destruction of almost all of New Orleans greater than the loss of two big office buildings in New York?  Isn’t it much greater?  Four years after 9/11, we’ve done nothing beyond removing the debris.  How much do you want to bet that four years from now, that’s all we will have done with New Orleans?  Me either.

        What if a meteorite of proper size had managed to hit New York a week earlier so as to damage and cause the eventual collapse of the WTC towers with exactly the same death toll and property damage numbers as the Arabs racked up?  In my parallel universe, do you think the site would today look the way it does right now?  Me either.

        Most importantly, what’s wrong with us?  Mother Nature bitch-slaps us with a natural disaster far in excess of what evil men could ever engineer, in the form of a hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, or fire that kills tens of thousands of people and destroys tens of billions of dollars worth of property, and what happens? The guys with the ditching dynamite and the bulldozers and the road graders and the concrete trucks and the welding equipment and the cranes don’t even wait until all the dust has settled.  They all immediately spit on their hands and get cracking, making it better than before, knowing full well another natural disaster is down the road.

        But when terrorists manage to knock down a building or two, we become a nation of little girls, paralyzed into inaction? 

        I don’t get it.

John Ross  9/7/2005

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