David Alexander Radix Radical Interpretations of Disaster by nikeborome


									           Nature’s Impartiality, Man’s Inhumanity:
          Reflections on Terrorism and World Crisis
              in a Context of Historical Disaster

                                  David Alexander
                   University of Massachusetts at Amherst, USA
                             davida@geo.umas.edu / catastrophe@tiscalinet.it

               Experience isn’t interesting till it begins to repeat itself--
               in fact, till it does that, it hardly is experience.
                                     Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart (1938)

               Would words like these to peace of mind restore
               The natives sad of that disastrous shore?
               Grieve not, that others' bliss may overflow,
               Your sumptuous palaces are laid thus low;
               Your toppled towers shall other hands rebuild;
               With multitudes your walls one day be filled;
               Your ruin on the North shall wealth bestow,
               For general good from partial ills must flow;
               You seem as abject to the sovereign power,
               As worms which shall your carcasses devour.
                                 Voltaire, Poème sur le Désastre de Lisbonne


        The terrorist outrages in New York City and Washington, DC, on 11 September
2001 were unprecedented in scale, coordination and daring. Yet no single aspect of
these operations was without some kind of a forerunner in history, whether modern or
ancient. My aim in this essay is to examine some possible parallels and analogs in past
disasters for the events of that fateful day in September and to consider the lessons that
might be learned from historical analysis in terms of both moral philosophy and
international relations. My reference event is the earthquake that struck Lisbon,
Portugal, in 1755. This is not the only historical event that might help throw light on the
U.S. tragedies, but it is one of the more significant episodes in terms of a number of
striking parallels, as outlined below.

The Lisbon tragedy

       In 1750 Lisbon was a thriving port city and the opulent capital of a colonial and
trading empire that stretched vast distances across the globe. It looked optimistically to
the wide expanses of the Atlantic Ocean, which carried its merchantmen, soldiers and

adventurers overseas to feats of prowess and commercial gain.

       The morning of Sunday, 1 November 1755, was bright and sunny with a brisk
northeast wind. It was All Saints’ Day, and at 9.40 a.m. the people were in church, where
the priests had begun the Gaudemus omnes in Deo. A small forshock set the churches
swaying and immediately afterwards the first of several huge earthquakes1 brought them
crashing down upon the hapless worshipers. Dense clouds of dust turned the
atmosphere black and screams rent the air.

        Altar candles set light to draperies in the churches, blazing hearths ignited the
fallen timbers of houses, and the wind relentlessly fanned the flames. Survivors rushed
into the city’s open spaces and down to the waterfront to congregate on the newly built
marble quay, the Cais de Pedra. Seismic liquefaction caused this to plunge into the
estuary and several hundred people were promptly drowned. Twenty minutes after the
first earthquake, the waters drew back and then repeatedly surged on land as three
gigantic tsunami waves coursed up the River Tagus estuary. In Lisbon they attained
heights of 10-15 m.2

       It is estimated that 60,000 people, perhaps one in five inhabitants, died when the
earthquake, fire and tsunami razed the city. The catastrophe was not entirely without
precedent, as in 1531 another earthquake and tsunami had destroyed thousands of
Lisbon’s buildings. This time it was followed by the fires of the auto da fé, as the
Inquisition sought culprits among the survivors. They need hardly have bothered: famine
and pestilence reaped a heavy toll among the makeshift camps on the fringes of the city.

Contemporary interpretations

       Any disaster should be analyzed in relation to the context of its times. The Lisbon
catastrophe took place at a particularly critical juncture in European intellectual life. It
was a moment of tension between opposing views of teleology. Leaving aside the

        The first main shock lasted at least three minutes and had an estimated
magnitude of 8.75. Its source was located somewhere in beneath the middle of the
Atlantic Ocean and it affected an area of 1.6 million km². Within the next three hours it
was followed by two other large earthquakes. The seismologist Charles Richter judged it
the largest earthquake ever registered, and the only one to have reached 9.0 on his
magnitude scale (which, however is inaccurate at very high seismic energy
        The tsunamis, which reached the coast of Finland, were 4 m high in the
Caribbean, 2 m high in southern Britain and in Scotland caused a 70-cm seiche to occur
on Loch Lomond (see Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (1830) Vol. 1, p. 438).
Simultaneously, earthquake damage almost totally destroyed Algiers. Meanwhile, huge
landslides and Sackungen occurred in the mountains of central Portugal.

opportunists and pragmatists, whose Weltanschauungen was unchanged by the disaster
(they plundered or they invented, as opportunities allowed), there were two schools of
thought. The rationalists were led by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who believed that life
was guided by un progres continuel et non interrompu à de plus grands biens3, and
Alexander Pope who reasoned, similarly, that:-

              All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
              All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
              All discord, harmony not understood;
              A partial evil, universal good.4

Hence, the prevailing 18th-century maxim was “whatever is, is right.” In fact, natural
philosophy revealed to Pope the all-embracing unity of the world, and to Leibniz such
terrible setbacks as earthquake catastrophes were all part of God’s plan. If that scheme
appeared at times monstrous, Bishop Butler argued that human beings could not be
expected to comprehend a creation planned on such a colossal scale. 5

       But as the scholar Clarence Glacken put it:-

           “Complacent attitudes toward the earth as a habitable planet were
       seriously undermined by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. This frightful
       catastrophe and the accompanying tsunami dramatized the problem of evil
       and the role of physical catastrophe affecting living things indiscriminately;
       it also raised questions about the order and harmony on earth and the
       fitness of the environment, and the validity of final causes in nature.”6

In fact, intellectuals and ordinary folk perceived Lisbon as the worst event of its kind
since the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. It began to look very dark indeed.

       In his Poème sur le Désastre de Lisbonne, Voltaire launched a frontal attack on
the tout est bien philosophy of Pope and Leibniz:

              Say what advantage can result to all,
              From wretched Lisbon’s lamentable fall?
              Are you then sure, the power which could create

        Nouveaux essais sur l’entendement humain.
        An Essay on Man.
        Analogy of Religion.
        Glacken, C.J. 1967. Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in
Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century. University of
California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, p. 521.

              The universe and fix the laws of fate,
              Could not have found for man a proper place,
              But earthquakes must destroy the human race?

In Candide, as Glacken put it, Voltaire “shoved aside the .... smug optimism in human
affairs, and uncritical assumptions of an inevitable improvement in the course of time.”7
More pragmatically, Johann Süssmilch, chaplain in the Prussian Army and a founder of
the science of demography, whose intellectual influence spread throughout Europe, saw
the Lisbon disaster as God’s way of controlling the relentless rise of population. He was
thus a progenitor of Malthusianism before the advent of Malthus, the great economic
moralizer. In short, Lisbon plunged Europe into gloom.

       Nevertheless, the catastrophe also stimulated a rational pragmatic approach to
earthquakes, as evinced by Immanuel Kant, who speculated on earthquake lights and
animal behavior, and John Mitchell, the reverend lecturer of Cambridge, who sought to
establish a basis for observational seismology. Yet he did so in the shadow of his
predecessor Robert Hooke, whose lectures, collected 67 years before the Lisbon
disaster, were the first, tentative excursions in observational catastrophism.

Parallels between Lisbon, 1755, and the U.S. disasters of 2001

        For almost a century, George Santayana’s dictum, “Those who cannot remember
the past are condemned to repeat it”8 has elicited controversy. To what extent is history
repetitive? Could it even be a cyclical process? If it repeats itself, is that an inevitable
process or does it reflect the historical ignorance of key participants, who unwittingly
replay the dramas of the past? Or are the apparent repetitions of history mere
coincidences? After all, we construct history from a pot-pourri of selected evidence and
load it with our interpretations, which in their turn are the fruit of contemporary

         With that disclaimer in mind, it is nevertheless possible to trace some parallels
between the Lisbon earthquake of 1 November 1755 and the terrorist attacks of 11
September 2001 in the eastern United States. To begin with, they both occurred at a
critical juncture in Western intellectual development. The mid-18th century was an
uncomfortable time of transition in both natural and moral philosophies. Similarly, the
third millennium begins at a time when humanity struggles to assimilate the technology it
has created, which has caused immense upheavals in the ground rules of human
relations. Both disasters affected great commercial cities with extensive networks of
influence abroad. Both dealt a body blow to trade and prestige, though not a fatal one.

       Traces on the Rhodian Shore, p. 523.
       The Life of Reason (1905), vol. 1, ch. 12.

       On a smaller scale, some of the physical parallels are remarkable: the intrusion of
disaster into a bright, sunny, tranquil day; the abrupt collapse of large, apparently solid
and immutable buildings; the passage of multiple events and successive waves of death
and destruction; and the clouds of dust obscured the vision of terrified survivors.

         It remains to be seen whether there will be parallels in the reconstruction. At the
time of writing this (October 2001) it seems possible. After the Lisbon disaster many
buildings were given shear walls that were designed to resist both excessive seismic
displacement and the spread of fire. Avenues and open spaces were rationally designed
(under the cramped constraints of the site, which is in a valley) to permit safe movement
during emergencies. After the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, there is much
talk of limiting the height of tall-buildings and improving their emergency evacuation
facilities. Both would be sensible precautions and, like the Lisbon reconstruction, would
represent a rare incidence of “architectural Darwinism,” the survival of the fittest building.
But history does not allow us to be very sanguine about this, as lessons are learned far
too rarely in post-disaster reconstruction.

       But perhaps the most striking parallel is in contemporary attitudes. Both events
represent a symbolic victory of chaos over order (that was, of course, one of the
objectives of the terrorists in New York and Washington, DC). In this, the world seems to
enter a dark tunnel of fear and uncertainty. Moral catastrophism gains a victory over its
better disposed adversaries: benignity, utilitarianism, uniformitarianism. Both events
threaten, not merely a world order carefully constructed on the basis of social and
economic expedients of powerful oligarchies, but also the sense of community which is
the only defense that ordinary people have against the rigors of such a world. After
Lisbon, the prevailing sense of optimism in the human condition suffered a period of
collapse; after the World Trade Center disaster, optimism in the power of technology to
advance human interests faltered, though perhaps temporarily. In synthesis, both events
were stiff reminders that human society is tempered by both progress and retrogress.

The lessons to be learned

       The Lisbon earthquake was the result of natural causes and was generally
regarded as impartial. The WTC disaster was the work of human malevolence, fruit of a
system of ethics that few of us can begin to comprehend, but that we universally
condemn. In both cases it proved difficult to resist the temptation to moralize. But in such
cases the only moral certainties are those that are based on highly selective readings of
the evidence. In Lisbon, the city fell in on those who had gone to pay their obsequies to
the Creator and the population was decimated. It was a curious sort of judgement for
wickedness, if that is what it was. Moreover, within 40 years Lisbon had been rebuilt in a
flashy, opulent style, with triumphal arches and monumental buildings: the
Enlightenment was back, propelled by commerce.9

        José-Augusto França, Lisboa pombalina e o illuminismo (1983). Bertrand

        In 2001, terrorist activities were born of the distress caused by American foreign
policy in the Middle East, with all its inhumanity and inherent contradictions. Many of the
latter stem in turn from the changed alliances of the post-Cold War era. Suddenly, as
common causes disappeared, allies turned into enemies. Freedom fighters, armed,
trained and financed by Western concerns, abruptly became the governments or agents
of rogue states. The stock markets of the western world financed the activities of those
who later on would be branded terrorists,10 while its armaments industries supplied
much of the hardware that they will use to resist any reprisals.

         In summary, a disaster on the scale of the collapse of the World Trade Center
towers, with more than 6000 fatalities, gives rise to such a powerful sense of outrage
that it tends to stifle rational debate about the underlying causes.11 Perhaps in the same
way, the horror of the Lisbon tragedy led to some crude outbursts of moralism about
human wickedness and the propensity of our species to reproduce too freely. In the
modern world, there is a politically-driven tendency to couch problems in black-and-
white terms, and to ignore their underlying contradictions. In the Middle East, this is
fueled by poverty and disadvantage, which prepare the ground for what in the West is
known rather misleadingly as “religious fundamentalism.” Like the nations of the Balkans
and Caucasus, the Middle Eastern countries (and Afghanistan) are buffer states that
tend to suffer the worst effects of global strategic alliances and enmities. In the West,
periodic disasters have contributed to a sense of self-absorption that amounts to an
unwitting form of arrogance. Its roots stretch back far longer than Lisbon, 1755, and its
implications are profound. As Klaus Meyer-Abich put it: “We see that Eurocentrism is not
only a political issue but is rooted in our modern consciousness. the depth of the roots
may explain why occidental rationality seems even more overwhelming for other cultures
than the political and economic power of the industrialized countries.”12

Editora, Lisboa.
        To the tune of US$2.8 billion in Afghanistan when the forerunners of the Taliban
were resisting the Russian invasion of 1979.
         The same was true of the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Here the presence
of an invisible “grief police” seemed to ensure that no one dissented from the national
collective anguish. (See Jack, I., and others 1997. Those who felt differently. Granta 60:
        Meyer-Abich, K.M. 1997. Humans in nature: toward a physiocentric philosophy.
In J.H. Ausubel and H.D. Langford (eds) Technological Trajectories and the Human
Environment. National Academy of Engineering, National Academy Press, Washington,
DC, p. 178.


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