"I am convinced that we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others". Edmund Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful. Sect. xiv. vol. i. p. 118.
As immediate furore around the Asian Tsunami dies down and people across the affected regions grapple with putting their lives together again, a macabre form of human interest in this large-scale tragedy is slowly seeing light of day.
Tsunami souvenirs such as VCDs, t-shirts and gory pictures of bloated corpses floating in the sea are being snapped up by a segment of both the local population as well as disaster tourists. The VCD industry is seeing the most brisk business and if dealers are to be believed, the Tsunami videos are outselling even pirated Bollywood and Hollywood blockbusters.
This has of course outraged the survivers and in some cases even called for police action. However, as always, it makes me wonder what motivates people to buy into another's tragedy. This is not a tragedy of the past - so the argument that it has historic value is limited. This is a tragedy which is still alive!
So what is it - an emotional response? Could it be that watching these horrific real-life pictures in the safe confines of our homes make us deeply grateful for having been spared?
Or is the response purely cognitive? It is now a known fact that sales of disaster movies go up after such events. So could it be simply a need to know what it was all about in the first place, to educate ourselves so that we are better prepared?
Perhaps both of these rationales are acceptable in a way. However, there could be something more to the story. Maybe by either snapping up pictures, touring the areas unnecessarily or by buying into these 'souvenirs', some people are trying to be part of the tragedy in a thoughtless way. They want to be seen as 'having been there and seen it almost first hand, albeit from a safe distance'.
While one must be cautious in drawing conclusions about people's motivations in any given situation, some articles in the Globe and Mail and CBS News are certainly of note in this context. Interesting how the US senator Bill Frist, before completing his rounds of the relief work in Sri Lanka, posed for photographs beside some Tsunami debris and instructed a photographer - "Get some devastation in the back".
Maybe disaster just sells; like many other things that are out of the ordinary, different from our otherwise mundane lives it simply piques our interest...such a pity though, isn't it?