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Haiti's problems could be our own

January 18, 2010

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. ... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

The South and Haiti are much closer to each other, geographically and historically, than we might register, watching this seeming magnet for misfortune within the neat frame of a television screen.

The comment Pat Robertson made last week about Haitians having made a deal with the devil to throw off the French hearkens back directly to the hysteria which gripped the slaveholding South as news about the slave uprising in what was then called Saint Domingue arrived a decade after the conclusion of the American Revolution. Terror over the massacres of whites there led to more restrictive laws governing both slaves and freed blacks, and set the emotional stage for the national argument that became the Civil War.

Slaveholding refugees of Saint Domingue often made their way to the South, especially New Orleans, which doubled in size around the turn of the 19th  Century with the arrival of refugees.

Unlike in recent decades, when Haiti has been looked on as a third-world backwater some distance from Florida, the colony of slaves who freed themselves occupied a central place in the American political consciousness in those early days. But the scope of the disaster which has befallen Haiti could bring the island national back to center stage. By and large, Americans have been generous, and less judgmental than Robertson, in their response to the disaster. There should also be some sober reflection on what it means to us.

To say the least, Haiti has had its share of disasters. But this one big enough to send a significant number of Haitians to our shores, one way or another. Interviewed on CNN Monday, retired Lt. Gen. Russell Honore’ suggested that outright evacuation of some of the worst-hit areas on the island made more sense than attempting to get supplies to survivors on the ground.

 The political reaction to a mass of new arrivals in the United States could be explosive, but Honore’, who won plaudits for his role in the Katrina recovery, may only be suggesting something that will make the inevitable more orderly. Haiti was a poor and hungry nation before last week’s earthquake. Now it will be a desperate one, and not very far away, even on a flimsy boat.

That suggests one practical reason why the government’s response to the tragedy should be on a level with the record outpouring of private charitable contributions. The Caribbean as a whole could become a more volatile region over the next decade, and the ongoing trauma from this disaster could make it worse. The U.S. has a big interest in doing what it can to stabilize the situation while it’s efforts still have an impact.

 There’s another reason. Haiti is a very poor place, but the operational difficulties being encountered in the current effort to bring relief to the island aren’t so very different than those which would occur with a similar event on our shores. In the most coldly rational of terms, it makes sense to figure out as much as possible about clearing roads, getting the lights back on and hospitals running from Haiti as we can. And we face the possibility of as great a disaster.

Don’t think California here, although the likelihood of a major earthquake there in the next three decades is high. Think Memphis, or any of the Mississippi River Valley towns all the way up Illinois that lie along the New Madrid fault.

There are of course other disasters, some of them man-made, for which we need a better blueprint. Nor should we assume that the Haitians, victimized over the years by bad governments, hunger and hurricanes, present a greater organizational challenge than ministering to large numbers of Americans suddenly deprived of so much they take for granted.

John Donne was right. We should be generous in the relief of Haiti, as so many Americans have been. And also mindful that the island of so much misery isn’t very far away.

Follow Tom Baxter on Twitter.

 

   
   

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