Opinion

Commentary: Helping Haiti will teach us valuable lessons

Few countries have taken possession of my emotions quite the way Haiti has. In the mid-'90s I traveled perhaps a dozen times to Port-au-Prince, covering the spasms of political violence that added to the already-overwhelming burden of suffering that history, man and nature have placed on the shoulders of the Haitian people.

Anyone who keeps up with the news from that small land that the gods seem determined to punish knows that the news from Haiti is almost never good. That's why we knew quickly that an earthquake in Haiti could only mean incomprehensible devastation.

Why does one country -- one people -- seem destined to stay trapped in the clenched claws of despair? Haiti's entire history reads like one endless emergency. The country started heroically. Black slaves rose up against the French in the late 1700s. The Haitians defeated Napoleon's army. The rest of the world, however, did not look kindly on the ragged band that humiliated a mighty emperor. Haiti was blocked from trading with other nations, and that was just the start.

Over the years Haitians have endured repeated natural disasters, cruel dictatorships, grinding poverty, aching hunger, foreign and domestic exploitation and homegrown brutality of the worst kind. I once interviewed a man who specialized in teaching others how to use a machete to kill people. Misery and anguish have become the Haitians' seemingly eternal lot; but why?

Perhaps this is a question best left for theologians, those people who ponder how God can allow such suffering among the innocent.

But the question, with urgent practicality, also presses the rest of us, those less versed on the divine but convinced that human beings must, in order to preserve our humanity, find a way to help ease pain of such enormity.

When an entire country -- one located within shouting distance of gleaming Miami Beach -- seems like a mad scientist's experiment to see how much suffering man can endure, perhaps the universe is sending a message that we are the ones being tested.

No, we cannot stop earthquakes. But that doesn't mean our responsibility ends with providing earthquake relief.

When the earthquake struck I was in Israel, covering -- of all things -- the first International Preparedness and Response to Emergency and Disasters conference organized by the Israeli Ministry of Defense and its Home Front Command.

As I received details about the quake, I was covering a massive drill where Israelis simulated a national response to terrorists infecting the population with deadly smallpox. The drill and the conference showed just how well a country can prepare for worst-case scenarios. And Israel, which has faced some pretty terrifying scenarios, is second to none in civil defense. Within hours of the quake, Israeli teams were on the ground in Haiti. The head of emergency response told me Israelis rushed there because they want to help in a humanitarian emergency -- and want to learn for future disasters.

Israelis drill for all kinds of mass-casualty attacks, including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. When I asked a top official at Israel's largest hospital about drills for conventional weapons, he explained they have no need for those because they have had so many occasions to practice with the real thing, from multiple terrorist suicide bombings in buses and restaurants to rocket attacks on Israeli civilian populations launched from Lebanon or Gaza.

The world spends untold sums studying how to prepare for disaster, how to fight poverty, how to cure disease. In Haiti, emergencies are no drill. The country feels like a remote African nation, but it is located just minutes by air from U.S. shores. Haiti should become a principal place where Americans and others practice saving lives. What we learn can benefit everyone. Haiti should become America's laboratory to find how to fight poverty and build an infrastructure of education and health care from the ground up. The benefits will accrue to the entire world, but Haitians, America's next-door neighbors, stand first in line. The response to Haiti's crisis should go on for years.

When I first started traveling to Haiti, I experienced sadness and shock and amazement. I met voodoo doctors and Catholic priests. I stood a few feet from one man killing another and I saw others attempt the same deed. But I also met heroic doctors and aid workers. I saw valiant entrepreneurs trying to revive their economy. Most of all, I saw a country, a people, in desperate need of help. Our help.

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