Leader Blues

Friday, January 15, 2010

EDITORIAL >> Disaster in Haiti

Americans may have become a little calloused to mass suffering because there have been so many bids for our conscience from scenes of war, terrorism, hurricanes and earthquakes in Indonesia, China, Iran and our own southern coast. But we have awakened each morning this week to images of unspeakable horror from Haiti that dispel any boredom with natural disasters.

The destruction and the suffering on that little island off our gulf shores are of a magnitude that they have awakened unusual humanitarian impulses for the people of other lands, or at least we hope they have. No disaster in memory has wrought such havoc, and it is upon the poorest and most abused people of the Western Hemisphere.

The first major earthquake along the Caribbean fault in 150 years fell upon the most vulnerable people, virtually destroying that country. Fifty thousand people or perhaps twice that lie dead under the wreckage, and most of the people of the sprawling capital and its environs are homeless and beyond relief.

Getting emergency relief to the survivors, in which the resourceful folks at Little Rock Air Force Base are employed, is a daunting proposition because the infrastructure has vanished in the rubble. Even the logistics of mass burials of corpses that lie everywhere seem impossible.

President Obama promised an all-out American effort to help, and that, of course, is our history. The private philanthropy of ordinary Americans may be unprecedented for foreign assistance. It ought to be.

But there are the usual discordant notes, sounded by people who do not think Haitians deserve our help. Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio icon, says that Haitians already get far more assistance from the U.S. government than they deserve and that American citizens should avoid helping. We wonder if that is because Haitians are black. The most unfathomable rant was from Rev. Pat Robertson, the television evangelist who had declared after the 9/11 attacks that God was punishing the United States for its tolerance of homosexuals and abortion.

Robertson said the tens of thousands of Haitians who died and the others whose lives were destroyed got what was coming to them. That presumably included the Catholic bishop and the other men of God who died in the collapse of the cathedral in Port au Prince. Robertson said God was punishing Haiti for rebelling 200 years ago and winning independence from Napoleon’s imperial rule. Independence was a “pact with the devil,” the good reverend said. The message was that Americans should not try to undo the Lord’s handiwork.

The history that Robertson referenced ought to impel us in the opposite direction. Haitians are a people with whom Americans have a special bond that dates to our mutual independence from imperialist Europe. Haitians came over and fought with Americans in the Revolutionary War.

Twenty-five years later, the African slaves who made up most of the population of the island rebelled and threw off French rule, but at a cost of 100,000 lives. It was the only slave rebellion that was also a war for independence, and Haiti was the first colony in Latin America to win independence from Europe.

The tyranny did not end with independence and continued down to modern times. The dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic on the other half of Hispaniola, carried on a vendetta against the blacks on the island, systematically slaughtering those caught on the Dominican side.

Haiti was ruled for 30 years after mid-century by the brutal Duvalier family and its terrorist militias, the Tonton Macoutes, until an uprising drove “Baby Doc” Duvalier away in 1986. President Reagan arranged for him to find exile in France.

Democracy has been uncertain for Haiti — President Clinton threatened U. S. armed intervention to preserve it — and not always kind.

No, Haitians deserve misfortune no more than did the peasants of the Chinese plains or the coastal dwellers in Louisiana and Mississippi who found themselves in the path of the worst hurricane in a century. We can’t be sure but we suspect that God expects us to help.