Editorial writers break out into a cold sweat when natural disasters strike. And a tsunami is a nightmare. What can be said to soothe the anguish? What can dull the shock at this reminder of our fragile purchase on life? Words fray and crumble. In fact, most major papers avoided the challenge.
News report from Japan have been so full of clichés that they seem written with an iPhone app: "tragedy strikes", "the wrath of Nature", "utterly unpredictable", "pouncing without warning", and so on and on. It's understandable; what else can a reporter say? The Economist dug out of its archives a report on the 1923 earthquake and ensuing fires which flattened Tokyo with a loss of well over 100,000 lives. It began: "Words very inadequately express the emotions aroused by such a tragedy as that which has occurred this week in Japan." It could have been ABC News this weekend.
Just as The Economist did in 1923, journalists focus on the numbers: How many have died? How much will it cost to rebuild? How will it affect the stock market? The additional complication of a possible nuclear meltdown is bad for Japan but a lucky break for journalists. This twist has inserted human agency into an uncommentable panorama of simple bad luck. Unlike a tsunami, a malfunctioning power plant is someone's fault. You can point fingers and demand explanations. And avert your eyes, for a while, from thousands of people who died for no seeming reason.
What is remarkable is how few people are asking the question posed by the Book of Job 3,000 years ago - why does bad stuff happen to good people?
The Sendai tsunami seems like the paradigm event - in the blink of an eye, to dust off a cliché, up to 10,000 people may have perished and the local infrastructure was pulverised. Death seemed to come so randomly - one elderly man was found floating on the roof of his house 10 miles offshore while his wife was swept away.
But journalists, like the rest of us, are schooled never to ask "Why?", only "How"? "Why" seems naïve and country-bumpkin-ish. Only children ask Why.
This is a legacy from the Enlightenment inaugurated by the English philosopher Francis Bacon. The only causes which can be discussed in a rational fashion, he argued, are efficient causes where there is discernible physical causality. In this scheme of things, inquiring about the final cause, ie, the purpose of an event, makes no sense whatsoever. Stuff happens. Just deal with it.
There were a few commentators who mentioned the meaning of the tsunami in the past few days, but they came from the school of Francis Bacon. Writing in Scientific American, research psychologist Jesse Bering jeered at "reality-challenged" fools who invoked God as the cause of the disaster. "The unthinkable truth", he says, is "that there is no answer because there is no riddle, that life is life and that is that".
Then there was the mayor of London and former editor of The Spectator, Boris Johnson, who advised us to send aid to the freezing Japanese and stop viewing the rubble as a sign of Gaia's wrath or God's justice. "There is no rhyme or reason to an earthquake, and we should for once abandon our infantile delusion that we are the cause and maker of everything."
But sneering at a question which has created the greatest works of literature in our culture - the Iliad, Job, Oedipus Rex, King Lear, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Primo Levi… -- exposes an enormous weakness in our post-Enlightenment culture.
Why can't we ask Why? It is the most fundamental of questions. It is downright stupid to dismiss it as an infantile delusion. In university lecture theatres, the most ancient taboos and our most heartfelt beliefs are being subjected to corrosive scrutiny. But "Why them?", the question foremost in our minds when we look at those appalling videos of a slurry of cars and boats and containers and drowning people racing over coastal towns, is said to have no answer.
Agnosticism about natural disasters is dangerous. Eventually people are going to seek answers. And they will find them in loopy places. The senior pastor of what is reputedly the largest single Christian congregation in the world, Yoido Full Gospel Church, in South Korea, declared that the tsunami and earthquake were "warnings from God against the Japanese people's atheism and materialism". And a young Christian (or is she?) with a demented smirk is exulting on YouTube that God smote the atheists and heathen in answer to her prayers.
The problem is that the dead hand of atheism is suppressing a legitimate spirit of inquiry. Detecting a purpose suggests that there might be a God, which is a kick-sand-in-my-face assertion nowadays. But isn't a philosopher who allows you to ask questions preferable to one who says, with a shrug of his shoulders, "Get over it"? If asking why so many people died in Japan last week ultimately leads to God, well, atheists will just have to deal with it.