The camera captures the wrenching earthquake as it happens in Japan, and the tsunami surge with tumbling debris; through the transmission of satellites one sees cars and chunks of buildings in the surge.
All of us have seen water flow across a flat surface, but this is the nightmarish possibility made real.
We see the suffering and feel sympathy transcending language and culture. The words of a survivor are interpreted: She doesn't know whether it's good or bad that she survived. Sympathy is immediate.
For a time there will be stories of hardship in Japan, as it was after the Haitian earthquake, and hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Images are transmitted through the air. We are fascinated but unaffected. The stories have impact, but we are not directly affected.
If one is sensitive there is a lasting impression. The underlying precariousness of life is understood. If not the next dramatic image created in a studio supplants the consciousness of real horror. Movies are wonderfully distracting. Images and stories, real and created, circulate in our consciousness. Television conveys the image, but it is utterly impersonal and transitory. One moment there is revolution in Egypt and Libya, the next, earthquake and tsunami in Japan - symptomatic of modern life.
Our distance is essential. It's not really happening to us. Through marvelous technology we are habituated to tragedy.
Ordinary life plays out among a circle of acquaintances and friends. If we are lucky we care about many friends, but perhaps more than a few of us have the capacity to care for only a few.
I once made the acquaintance of a handsome black fellow in his early forties. He grew up in a family without a father. My acquaintance was not present in the upbringing of his son, and his son is not now present in the raising of his own children: through four generations a father has not taken part in the life of the family. The norm of a two-parent home has been destroyed for black America. Once a healthy, societal norm has been destroyed, how do we get it back?
My acquaintance left town suddenly under bad circumstances. I gathered from my brief time with him that this was the pattern of his life.
This is the sort of devastation measured out day-by-day that plagues present-day America: not the dramatic event, but the slow dissolution of the bounds of friendship and family.
Marriages are failing throughout America, not just among black Americans. Divorce is common - signaling that something is missing in our way of living.
Who can measure how much misery has been introduced to America because of the disintegration of marriage? Its effects are hidden in the emotional disposition of each person.
As awesome as a tsunami is, the slow disintegration of a once-healthy institution, such as marriage, is as devastating, but in a different way. Towns can be rebuilt, but if children aren't learning patience, hard work, loyalty, courage, honesty, and empathy, how can we build a functioning, nurturing neighborhood?
We can't see an institution as we can see a building, but healthy institutions make for a thriving country. America has been blessed with many virtuous institutions. They are vital and precious.
The St. Croix Review is dedicated to preservation of healthy American institutions. *