The scale of it is simply hard to comprehend. “Catastrophe,” “disaster” and other adjectives–words often used hyperbolically to describe sporting events and equally trivial happenings–these words are found wanting in these times, unable to properly convey the scope of the destruction wrought by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Coming as it did during the high season of Western revelry made it all the more jarring. As we celebrated the transition from one year to the next, over a hundred thousand souls were instantly transitioned from this world to the next. And just as the tide eventually subsided, revealing the true extent of the destruction, so too the tsunami’s aftermath has lain bare the very contrasts and contradictions of our human “civilization.”

Sure, on its surface, this is easy to cast as a chastening reminder of the insignificance and frailty of humanity in comparison with the forces of nature. The gnashing of tectonic plates along a 1,200-meter fault line at the bottom of the Indian Ocean near Sumatra set in motion mammoth waves that traveled thousands of miles at speeds rivaling commercial aircraft before making devastating landfall in over 13 countries. The 9.0-magnitude quake was said to have altered the earth’s rotational speed by a fraction of a second. Events such as this have been chronicled before on a geologic time scale, where they are mere scientific curiosities, but when these forces manifest themselves in our lifetimes they clearly illustrate the degree to which our existence is both miraculous and tenuous.

Looking deeper, though, we find this disaster a revelation of far more than our mortality. The consequence of extreme, global economic disparity loomed as large over the tsunami victims as the dreadful wave itself. As the death toll continues to escalate, we must consider that far fewer people would have lost their lives had the quake occurred in the Pacific Ocean, due to the state-of-the-art seismic monitoring system that those countries share.

A summit of world leaders convened in response to the crisis has resolved to implement such a system for the Indian Ocean countries to afford them early detection and warnings to prevent a future tragedy. The cost of such a system would only be in the tens of millions for the region. (In Thailand alone there was a $2-million project that was aborted several years ago for lack of funding.) Several millions more would be needed to create the necessary communications infrastructure to disseminate the warnings to the vulnerable population. But national infrastructure is often a low priority item in impoverished countries, particularly those saddled with the burdens of high debt service to international monetary institutions.

On Dec. 26, in Thailand, some scientists found out about the earthquake as early as an hour before the first wave and still chose to sit on the information because disrupting the tourist economy with a (potentially) false evacuation would have been career suicide. Many of the beachfront towns and villages ravaged by the tsunami were favored holiday haunts of wealthy foreigners, particularly Europeans–the juxtaposition of rich tourists and impoverished indigenous people being a worldwide motif for vacation hotspots. That they achieved a semblance of equality in death was an irony missed in a lot of the early tabloid coverage chronicling the harrowing ordeals of supermodels and soccer stars.

The United States took umbrage at the comments of a UN disaster relief official on the day after the tsunami hit, who said that Western nations displayed “stinginess” in their initial offers of aid. “The United States is not stingy,” Colin Powell told a CNN interviewer the following day, after the United States anted up to $35 million from its initial commitment of $10 million in relief aid. Powell, while on the way out, operated once again in his damage control role for the president, who himself waited a full three days after the tragedy to make any substantive comment.

The United States, to its credit, has provided ships, planes, personnel, logistics and leadership since the beginning of the crisis, and at the latest count our miserly initial offer has been raised to about $350 million. (In a bizarre sidebar, the stinginess scenario has been dramatically reversed, with many countries engaged in what was characterized by British Foreign Minister Jack Straw as a “bidding war” to reap the public relations benefit of contributing the most money. Australia is currently “winning” with pledges of $1 billion, with Germany and Japan not far behind.)

Private donations are soaring to meet the challenge, as are corporate gifts and pledges. All of which makes me hopeful in the short term–until I consider that our problems are long term. Even delivery of the relief is complicated by human folly. In Sri Lanka and Aceh, the waters unearthed land mines from decades of deadly conflicts and insurgencies, making physical passage a potentially life threatening mission for survivors and aid workers alike. Tensions between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government and between the Banda Aceh separatists and the Indonesian military are making it extremely hard for aid workers and NGOs to deliver food and medicine in those countries. Thousands of miles away on the African coast, similar difficulties abound, with UN officials wary of flying too near the territories of Somali warlords armed with anti-aircraft artillery.

Such is our world.

Over here, in the United States, we could throw up our hands, I suppose, and declare that those people need to get themselves together, and that they should solve their own problems. Of course, that attitude conveniently ignores our complicity in the whole setup. The persistence of global economic inequity means that there’ll always be someone to make your sneakers for a dollar a day. But politics are almost as much a factor in this region as economics. Case in point: the brutally repressive Indonesian military that was strengthened for years with U.S. funding until the massacre of East Timoreans in 1999 caused us to cut back our “aid.” But those visionaries in the White House have been vigorously lobbying for a resumption of Indonesia’s military aid, without any preconditions of reform.

America’s $350-million pledge of tsunami aid is a good start, but for perspective’s sake, keep in mind that we’ve spent almost $150 billion dollars over the past two years to create a tragedy of our own in Iraq. I’m happy that President Bush is giving $10,000 of his own money to fund the tsunami relief, but I can’t say that I’m too thrilled about what he’s done with yours and mine. We’re spending over $150 million a day in Iraq. That’s around three times our tsunami relief pledge spent every week to create more enemies and bring misery to the lives of not only the Iraqi people but our own soldiers, who will find, unfortunately, that checks to the VA don’t get cut nearly as big or as fast as checks to the defense contractors.

The central question for me is whether, over the long haul, our collective will to help in this region recedes like the wave, especially once the problems begin to blend gradually from those associated with the tsunami to the far more deadly and pervasive brand of background misery endured continually by the world’s poor.

It is my sincere hope that the intense scrutiny of ongoing disaster coverage will eventually lead people to thoughtful analysis of those broader problems. After all, if we only think in terms of needless deaths, then we are besieged by tragedy every day, albeit without spectacular video coverage.

“There is the equivalent of a man-made, preventable tsunami every week in Africa,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, pointedly, discussing his plans to use the UK’s turn at the helm of the G8 economic powers to draw attention to the plight of that continent’s and the world’s poorest nations.

Britain’s treasury chief, Gordon Brown, went even further, saying, “I believe in 2005 we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver for our times a modern Marshall Plan for the developing world–a new deal between the richest countries and the poorest countries, but one in which the developing countries are not supplicants but partners.”

Pronouncements such as these are very encouraging, considering the sources (black folk been talking about a Marshall Plan for Africa for years, but we won’t go there today). As one old enough to remember the talk of a “peace dividend,” I can’t help but be skeptical, seeing how that talk was followed by almost two decades of completely voluntary and needless war. In Iraq, in particular, I think we’re now bound to operate under the “you break it, you bought it” rule posted in many stores.

The ocean, I guess, is half empty, or half full, depending upon how you look at it. As encouraging as the tremendous outpouring of worldwide sympathy and empathy for the tsunami victims has been, I remain convinced that the key to preventing similar disasters will be in the building up of these countries before catastrophe strikes.