Starts with a shudder, or a rumble; a few books and CDs tumbling off the dresser, a crash of dishes in the kitchen, the sound of splitting concrete. For a few moments, gravity reinvents itself, and an 18-year-old cashier at some convenience store somewhere ducks and watches all the junk food hurling itself off the shelves, the vodka taking suicide plunges in aisle three. A woman outside jogs into the street and stops, then takes a few more steps, whirls around at all the buildings around her shaking in place.
Later, and an entire world away, a man rolls over in bed as the sun strikes his face, a little cold, the blankets kicked off in his sleep. He checks his phone. First, the disorienting, half-conscious jolt of re-entering the world at midstream: God, there’s video. There, in Japan, a helicopter flying over a terrifying brown ooze of mud and glass and metal that’s swallowing farmland and hamlets Biblically, a liquid extinction, death in real time. The water sweeps into towns and up the roads, carrying cars and houses and telephone poles farther inland, and the warning sirens eventually die out, you see, because they’ve been carried away, too. Later, the ocean recedes — the ocean! — carrying a man nine miles out to sea before he’s picked up by the navy. Ashore, it’s a deluge of dumpsters and trees and mud and crumpled front doors with no houses attached to them, and no one even knows when they’ll even be able to really count the dead.
Did anyone in Libya think about the tsunami? There, a calamity of a different family: young men pouring out of their homes with beat-up Kalashnikovs — where did all these guns come from? — wearing bandoliers and ammo belts and kaffiyehs in strange configurations. These kids throw their scattered might against the old immovable tyrant, or, rather, the foreign brigades bought with his billions. There, against the low sunlight, a young man in faded camo and tennis shoes lies on his back on a cement road with a heavy machine gun between his legs, trained at the sky, pitting his bullets and his amateur rage against Qaddafi’s professional air force. Where is the US?, the New York Times quotes the rebels as wondering, while rockets and small-arms fire rain on their positions. Meanwhile, puffy guys in suits in Washington with thin-ish hair ponder a no-fly zone, their thinking plagued by the potpourri outcomes of a dozen foreign interventions and abstentions: quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, blunders in Somalia and Iran, humanitarian failures in Bosnia and Rwanda. What happens if Qaddafi wins? God, what happens if the rebels win? What then? This is a fucking disaster.
The thing that separates a disaster from a crisis is that something has dissolved: society, government, family. There are disasters given to us by nature, disasters forced on us by people, and disasters inflicted on ourselves. When I was 19, I watched an anxiety disorder and a depressive episode take away my personality while I survived my days beneath heavy doses of Xanax. Certainly nothing compared to a tsunami, or a civil war, but that kind of perspective is hard to attain when living through it; in either case, the point is that nothing is immune from a kind of devastation. Happiness, like cities, like families, like governments, takes years to build. It requires the kind of momentum only achieved by stability: Time to get to know someone, time to establish reliable political coalitions, fair laws, vibrant commerce. The agonizing part is that it only takes moments to tear down. A wall of water annihilates the city, a protest turns into a bloodbath, a friend’s trust is violated by a bad decision. How many years of power did the Fukushima nuclear power plant provide before it became a radioactive deathtrap? How many generations lived in New Orleans before it was drowned in a storm? Painful to ask, but would the Libyan rebels have been better off not to rebel at all?
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places,” Hemingway once wrote. “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
The trick is to survive and keep going, if you can, and to build again. But that requires a little luck, and the world needs so much of it.