Friday, December 3, 2010

The Fire This Time

The dangerous wildfire spreading in Northern Israel is yet another reminder of how desperately the world community needs to pivot toward global environmental risk as the primary focus of security. It is also a reminder of the virtuous moral shift that would quickly follow a new "war on environmental disaster" to replace out spent and disastrous "war on terror." The blaze, which began in forested areas near Carmel, Israel, and now threatens the outskirts of Haifa (read Haaretz coverage in English here), has already killed 40, mostly young prison officer trainees who were rushing to aid the evacuation of a prison when a tree collapsed on the bus, trapping most of the rescuers in the conflagration.

With dozens of countries sending aid, and Israel's well organized air force now taking control of an international fleet of fire fighting equipment and personnel, the fire will hopefully be under control soon. When it is, perhaps Israelis, whose palpable sense of fear and isolation has grown in recent years along with the nation's insistence on a "go it alone" approach to its occupation of Palestinian territories (and International Law more generally), will consider how different it feels to confront environmental risks. Even though the blaze claimed more lives in one day than years of Hamas rocketing in the years before Israel's 2008 war on Gaza, Israel was not isolated this time. Instead dozens of countries immediately offered aid, including Muslim and Arab countries, and first of all, apparently, Turkey, the Muslim powerhouse whose once good relationship with Israel has gone sour over the Gaza situation and this summer's preemptive attack on the Turkish aid vessel bound for the strip. Meanwhile, the Netanyahu coalition government, which is fond of reminding the world that Israel looks to no one but itself for security, showed no hesitation in defining the need for and accepting international assistance. In its long war with the Palestinians, Israel has not only lost many of its friends around the world, it is increasingly divided on the inside, both between Arab and Jew, and among Jews. In the fire, by contrast, Arab and Jewish Israelis were together among the population threatened by the fire, on the bus of young rescuers who perished, and even the inmates in the jail they were speeding toward rescuing (they did get out).

Why is it so different when security is defined as about terrorists or criminals, than when the security problem is an environmental disaster? Think of risk as a kind of mirror in which a society sees and acts upon itself. In the mirror of terrorism/crime we see vulnerable victims and motivated capable aggressors (although we may not agree always on who is who, and we are very likely to read racial, class, and religious otherness into the classification scheme). Reacting to that image, we feel empathy with the victims (as we see them) and anger toward the aggressors (as we see them). How dare they? We seek to make them pay a punishing price which will surely change their motivations. Failing that we seek to build walls around the aggressors, or at least between the victims and the aggressors, who are imagined to share no characteristics, dependencies, or sympathies.

In the mirror of the Carmel fire (or the Haitian Earthquake, the 2005 South East Asian Tsunami, or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), we see a population that includes potential victims and potential rescuers, regardless of race, nationality, and religion. We see governments and people who are both part of the problem (because they failed to prepare and created life styles that made them more vulnerable and perhaps disasters more likely) and a necessary part of the solution. We see that the past no longer matters; nor who did what to whom. All that matters is how we can work together to survive on a planet whose margin for human habitation is far smaller and more fragile than we have learned to imagine.

While both Israelis and the world often act as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and extended conflicts with countries like Iran) is the only one that matters to security in the Middle-East, the fire is a reminder of the vast environmental problems within the region (especially around water) and the potentially devastating consequences of world environmental events (like a sea-level rise of 2 or 3 feet by the middle of this century). The need to face up to these environmental risks and give them the kind of political, economic, and cultural attention we give to terrorism and crime is not one of either objective necessity or moral preference, it is both. We cannot wish crime and terror away, but we can see other threats. In this problem/opportunity Israel is hardly alone. The whole world, whether developed or still developing faces a disaster roulette whose odds seem to be getting worst while their internal politics are getting sharper (especially in the US). The irony is that when we choose to allow ourselves to get really scared by this threat, we may end up far more confident in ourselves and each other.

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