Editorial Roundup for Wednesday — October 12, 2005

• Earthquake: The calculus of horror


Earthquake: The calculus of horror

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tuesday, Oct. 1

When the ground began to shake on Saturday morning, many among the 4.5 million people of Pakistanicontrolled Kashmir thought war had returned. Given their tragic history, it was not an unreasonable assumption, but this time it was geology at work, not geopolitics.

An earthquake measured at 7.6 on the Richter scale rocked Kashmir, one of the world’s poorest and most politically tense regions. UNICEF said 40,000 people may have died in the quake and its aftershocks. In the calculus of horror, it falls somewhere between last December’s Asian tsunami, which killed 232,000, and Hurricane Katrina, which killed about 1,200 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

But there is a special element of tragedy to a natural disaster in Kashmir, if only because man had already made such a mess of it. The region became a stepchild in 1947, when British India’s largely Muslim northwestern states became the new nation of Pakistan, and its largely Hindu states to the south and east became a newly-independent nation. Kashmir, a disputed region in the far north, was divided along the so-called “Line of Control,” and since has been the scene of four wars and an ongoing nuclear staredown.

The earthquake did not honor the “Line of Control,” but, instead, wreaked havoc on both sides. But with its epicenter 60 miles north of the capital of Islamabad, Pakistan took the brunt of it. At least 11,000 are thought to have died in Musaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan’s side of Kashmir. Hundreds of children sitting for examinations in their classrooms died as their schools collapsed around them.

Development in Pakistani Kashmir had been minimal because Pakistan viewed the area as a front-line military staging area. Housing and infrastructure were built on the cheap, with roads designed for military needs, not civilian access. As a result, rescue and relief operations faced major problems gaining access to towns and villages in the mountains. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said the most urgent need was for helicopters.

President George W. Bush, who had been criticized for his slow response to the tsunamis last winter, acted swiftly, pledging eight military helicopters and an “initial contribution” of $50 million. Even before the earthquake, Mr. Bush had been looking for a way to show support for Gen. Musharaff, a military strongman who faces considerable opposition in his country from conservative Muslims for his alliance with the U.S. war on terrorism.

For Gen. Musharaff, the earthquake brought some perversely good news: Many members of the outlawed militant group Lakshare-Toiba were reportedly killed in the quake. He also got an offer of help from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In 2001, after an earthquake in India’s Gujharat state, Gen. Musharraf made a similar call to India’s then-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. That gesture led to a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders, one credited with dialing back tensions in Kashmir. War between the two nations would make an earthquake, even one that kills 40,000 people, look minor. It would be well if India and Pakistan took this one as another opportunity to come together.

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