The images from Haiti are, if anything, only getting worse. What was left of an already fragile society is starting to break down, as violence and chaos take over. Despite the heroic efforts of aid workers and the battered Haitian government, it looks as if Haiti's problems will persist well into the 21st century, long after the debris is cleared and the houses are rebuilt.
While the scope of the tragedy in Haiti is nearly impossible to exaggerate, it's important to remember that last week's earthquake was so deadly because Haiti is Haiti.
If a similarly powerful earthquake were to hit much more densely populated San Francisco or Los Angeles, the death toll would be much lower. That's an amazing thing when you consider that American cities are crammed with skyscrapers while Port-au-Prince's skyline was, for the most part, one story high. Indeed, as others have noted, when a 7.1 earthquake hit the Bay Area two decades ago, 67 people were killed. Meanwhile, the Haitian death toll is almost unknowable, but almost certainly over 100,000 and climbing.
It's hardly news that poverty makes people vulnerable to the full arsenal of Mother Nature's fury. The closer you are to living in a state of nature, the crueler nature will be -- which is one reason why people who romanticize tribal or pre-capitalist life (that would be you, James Cameron) tend to do so from a safe, air-conditioned distance and with easy access to flushing toilets, antibiotics, dentistry and Chinese takeout.
The sad truth about Haiti isn't simply that it is poor, but that it has a poverty culture. Yes, it has had awful luck. Absolutely, it has been exploited, abused and betrayed ever since its days as a slave colony. So, if it alleviates Western guilt to say that Haiti's poverty stems entirely from a legacy of racism and colonialism, fine. But Haiti has been independent and the poorest country in the hemisphere for a long time.
Even if blame lies everywhere except among the victims themselves, it doesn't change the fact that Haiti will never get out of grinding poverty until it abandons much of its culture.