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NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

Reflections on Tragedy

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Scott Simon reflects on the aftermath of the natural disasters in Myanmar and China.


There was a time when lives lost in natural disasters, like the 300,000 people who died in the Bangladesh cyclone of 1970 or perhaps 650,000 people who perished in the China earthquake of 1976 when the country was more closed to foreign media were statistics, often determined weeks after a catastrophe. Now, at least a fraction of those statistics are revealed in the stories of people delivered by the news media within hours or minutes.

Turning news on the other side of the world into something personal can make good people wonder if they shouldn't just follow such stories or blink back tears but also do something beyond making a contribution to a relief group.

The generals who so brutally rule Myanmar are preventing more than a trickle of aid from reaching their own people. Just this morning there are stories about all the food, drinking water, blankets, mosquito nets and medicine sitting idly on the USS Essex and other ships that happen to be participating in multinational military exercises in the Andaman Sea.

As Dan Schorr has said there are at least a few voices, most notably the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, who's also a founder of Doctors Without Borders, who suggest that nations with military wherewithal in the region, like the U.S., France and Australia should deliver aid despites the general's recalcitrants. What amounts to an armed humanitarian intervention.

Yet the result undermines the Burmese regime and drives the generals from power, that might be termed collateral benefits. Many Americans may shrink at the thought of yet another mission for an overstretched U.S. military. But what is the morality of having so many ships, planes and supplies that could save lives simply wait offshore while playing war games?

This week Robert D. Kaplan, a writer for the Atlantic and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security said in the New York Times that the mere threat of military intervention could spur the generals to let in more aid but he also cautioned that any actual military admission would be fraught with hazards. What if the Burmese were to shoot down a U.S. or French helicopter delivering relief supplies, saying that an aircraft violating its airspace is no less an invasion for being filled with rice and medicine.

Mr. Kaplan said that should the generals fall, it could set up open warfare between Burmans, Chins, Karens(ph), Chans(ph) and other groups. Mr. Kaplan supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein but said Western governments should have learned in Iraq not to thrust themselves into somebody else's country unless they're prepared to stay, keep order and help build a future.

How do we weigh the costs of all the potential problems of intervention against the certainty that more people will die from doing nothing?

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small