The serpent spits his venom

Posted: Dec 31, 2004 12:00 AM

Natural disasters bring incomprehensible suffering. In this, they differ from manmade calamities. If you believe in free will, you can at least allow that human beings are capable of inexhaustible evil when they turn away from God, and that innocents suffer as a consequence. Even if God exists, free will makes the Holocaust, Pol Pot and Stalin possible.

 But when the plates of the Earth's crust shift suddenly, plunging whole populations into desperate agony, there are no moral lessons to be drawn. This solid Earth can become a monster, snatching babies from their mothers' arms and drowning saints and sinners alike. For believers, there is nothing to be said, except perhaps, what Jews say at any death: "Blessed be the True Judge."

 But at least in response to such a catastrophe, the better angels of human nature are usually on display. Thousands of people around the world have donated to relief agencies. Governments have risen to the occasion, offering emergency aid. And yet, the serpent of spite and hatred slithers through even this benevolent tableau.

 The U.N. relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, wondered why the wealthy nations of the world were "so stingy" with foreign aid. (Hint: He wasn't thinking of Saudi Arabia.) President Bush responded by noting that the United States had pledged $15 million in aid just days after the tsunami hit and more than doubled that pledge within a day after that.

 Nor is there any question that the United States will lead the world in the rebuilding effort that will follow. We always do. Egeland later protested that he had been misinterpreted -- that he was talking about development aid, not disaster relief. Maybe so. But since the United States gives nearly 10 times more than the next closest competitor (the European Union), it is hard to see how the world "stingy" could apply in any case.

 No, it was Egeland's inescapable resentment of the United States that was on display. And he was not the only one whose veil slipped in the wake of this catastrophe.

 In Rome, the semi-official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, accused Israel of refusing to help flood victims in Sri Lanka. The paper scolded that it was time for "a radical and dramatic change of perspective" among people who are "too often preoccupied with making war." Israel, the paper continued, should transcend the "small-minded approach that restricts their horizons" in what "should be a time for unconditional solidarity."

 The Vatican newspaper was misinformed. In fact, Israel had immediately dispatched a Health Ministry contingent to Thailand, and search and recovery teams to other stricken nations.

 With regard to Sri Lanka specifically, the irony deepens. Israel had filled a jumbo jet with 80 tons of food and $100,000 worth of medical supplies, ready to dispatch to Sri Lanka. But the Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka told the Israelis their aid would not be welcome if several dozen military officers were part of the relief effort. So the Israelis consented, and sent only the supplies.

 What did the Sri Lankans think the Israeli military would do in Colombo, set up roadblocks? Obviously they were included only because they have the necessary expertise. And just as obviously, the Sri Lankan decision to look a gift horse in the mouth is reminiscent of Iran's refusal, this time last year, to accept any aid at all from Israel following a terrible earthquake.

 Remarkably, it is not Sri Lankan small-mindedness, but Israel, that L'Osservatore Romano chose to condemn. That cut about a people "too often preoccupied with making war" is particularly savage. What nation has been more warred against in the past 50 years than Israel?

 And in any case, would an Italian newspaper with close ties to the Vatican ever even hint that, say, Germans were a people "too often preoccupied with making war"? Or radical Muslims? Inconceivable. Nor did the paper condemn Iran in 2003 for refusing Israel's offer of aid.

 Canada's National Post put it well: "We expect such false attacks on Israel from the paranoid fever swamps of the Arab world, which, for all we know, are now reporting that 4,000 Jewish tourists failed to show up for their hotel reservations in Phuket over the weekend. But a publication like this one (L'Osservatore Romano) is held to a higher standard."

 Or should be. Don't hold your breath for apologies to the United States or Israel. That's not the way the world works.