Note No. 45

January 17, 2010

When I first see the picture, I think it is a burning pile of sticks. That’s what his legs look like: branches sticking up into the air.

Then I read the caption and see that it is a dead body, burning in the street, because he had been a looter and a mob killed him and now his corpse has been set on fire.

I force myself to look at the other 15 photos. But at the end of it all, when I have gone through the slide show of images and seen the destruction that a couple of shifting plates underground could wreak on a place, it is still the burning man that haunts me the most. I can just imagine his scrawny little body picking through whatever it was he was taking that was not his and I don’t know why, because for all I know, he could have been stealing something like carpet, something not even related to nourishment, but I can see him as clearly as I see the skin-and-bones cats that perch on the side of the trash can across the street from the hotel while they scrounge for whatever still counts as food in the pile of garbage, and I can just imagine this little man’s excitement, that surge of joy that you get when you see money lying in the street, because it’s there for YOU to find! And then, just as he gets his hands around the thing, the ticket to keeping him fed just one more day, I see him being bowled over by the angry mob.

That’s not what happened. I later read the article about how this man was brought to his eventual gravesite by police, who had caught him looting, and when the police told a nearby crowd what this man had done, they stripped the man, beat him, dragged him bleeding and vomiting to a pile of trash, and set the pile on fire to watch him burn to death.

And I know it’s naive, and I know it’s easy to say when it’s not my stuff being stolen, and I know it’s impossible in a situation that just teeters on anarchy, yet I cannot help but think: why couldn’t he just have it? In a situation where aid is not making it to everyone, why can’t someone just be allowed to fend for himself?

I have been putting this off all week, looking at Haiti in her misery, and it has been a conveniently stressful and busy week, so I can say that I have not really had a moment to sit down and stare at the depictions of injured, hungry people waiting in line, anguish on their faces, even if I know that’s not true. There is always time where you make it.

Sure, I have heard the statistics: 100,000 dead, maybe 200,000 by the time they sort through all the rubble, and unbury all the bodies.
I have also seen the occasional sign of others mobilizing to help. At Costco, after having raced around to do my business shopping, because a taxi driver was waiting for me outside with my other bags and bags of stuff that I had had to buy for the hotel, the cashier asked me if the water I was buying was for the relief efforts. She had to ask me twice before I knew what she was talking about.
No, I said; it was for me.
“Okay. Because I was going to tell you that they are not accepting water anymore anyhow.”

Then coming back on the ferry that night, my dad pulled up an Associated Press article on his iPhone and I happened to see a quote about people in the streets shoving each other out of the way to guzzle water from a broken pipe. And they are not accepting bottled water anymore?

It is that feeling of helplessness from afar, that very acknowledgment that even what you do to try to assist may not make a difference, that keeps me from even making an effort. That is not meant to be an excuse. Rather, it is an admittance to my lack of faith— a dearth that could be the disparity between one person’s last sip of liquid and the glass that keeps him going for another few hours.

I know I am not the only one, either, because I wrote an article about it after the tsunami in 2004. I was working at the Lynchburg News & Advance at that time, and there were so many organizations soliciting money and donations, and for just as much effort as they had to put into gathering these things, it seemed they had to put an equal amount into verifying their reputation, assuring the donors that the stockpiles would indeed make it to the victims.

But even so, despite the back slapping that it was shaping up to be one of the best examples of ethical, honest international aid that was actually making a difference, there were reports of massive backlogs of basic necessities that could not get to where they were most needed, because the entire infrastructure of the country had been destroyed. I communicated with an Army guy stationed on an aircraft carrier just off the coast and I remember his frustration that they were there to help but they could not reach the people who needed it.

So this entire week, I have been opportunely occupied with things that are so minute and mundane in the grand scheme of life, but supremely important in the day-to-day operation of a hotel, things like hot showers and good water pressure, and it is only now, on my day off with the worst of my struggles behind me, that I decide that I can really sit down and look at what has been happening all week.

And that old, familiar feeling of futility returns.

What could honestly be done right now that is not already being done? Is it really going to make a difference if I give 10, 20, 100 dollars to the Red Cross?

I don’t know, because I won’t see where it goes.

But I eventually go to GuideStar to try to find an organization to which I can donate, because I know that I have to, or else I am just going to be another part of the problem— the stagnant mass that would rather do nothing than risk doing something that ends up being nothing. And I realize that in this case, I don’t mind the risk of doing something which does not eventually make a difference, because I prefer it to the alternative of not doing anything when it could have changed so much.

I look at the list of non-profits working in Haiti and there is nothing new, nothing cutting-edge. I don’t know what I am expecting to find among the list of usual players but I think I must be hoping that in the age of Twitter and self-branding and forward thinkers, that something absolutely revolutionary has been discovered in the field of charity, but the closest thing I can see to that is that these days, many people are probably going to make their donation by typing a number into their phone and sending the gift via text message.

That does not change the fact that goodwill must still make it to trusted hands that will distribute the contributions to where they need to go, and nowhere else. I finally choose International Relief and Development Inc, because they work with the world’s most vulnerable groups and they are organized into six main areas of development: Civil Society, Food Security, Public Health, Relief, Economic Development, and Infrastructure. My logic is that even if I am too late to help in the immediate department of relief, this group promises to also work for the future of Haitians, trying to restore the basic system that they need to get back on their feet.

And then I make a note in my calendar to remind myself two months from now to make another donation of the same amount, because I know that another problem in the field of charity is that everyone rushes to make their offering immediately after a disaster has happened but several months later, the victims are still struggling to survive and the world is focused on something else.

So, in the end, I know the answer to why that man could not be allowed to get away with his theft. Because one man saving himself is not nearly as beautiful as a band of people coming together to help each other, to share what they find, to distribute equally what there is with the belief and patience that there is always an abundance, always enough to go around. Even if they die in pursuit of this credence, they have done so with conviction and support from one another.

And it is our responsibility to at least try to help them be able to have that.

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