Commentary: Sometimes, the world feels like it's spinning out of control

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT)
Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT) MCT

I sailed through a full-body scanner at Kansas City International Airport over the weekend with nary a qualm. All the hubbub over invasion of privacy, government intrusion and “don’t touch my junk” seems so long ago. So last year.

This year, Tunisia happened. Then Egyptians camped out in Tahrir Square until their president-for-life called it quits, and it seemed as though the world has shifted on its axis. Revolts broke out in Yemen and Bahrain. All eyes turned to Libya as a despot deployed his heavy weaponry on his own people.

And just like that, the earth did move on its axis, and we pivoted in the direction of Japan. That 9.0 magnitude quake off the coast shifted the earth’s axis by 6.5 inches, geologists report. The earth’s mass lurched toward the center, causing the planet to spin a bit faster. And that seems a fitting parallel to the dizzying pace of events in this global village.

We have arrived at the perilous point where the people at the center of one or another monumental event plead for news coverage as if protection comes with attention. No one wants to be alone in the dark.

“Japan will be fine,” some soul out in cyberspace declared on Twitter. “Pray for Libya. Pray for Bahrain.”

“Do not forget about Libya,” implored someone else. “We are up against the devil and the world stands silent!”

Japan will not be fine anytime soon. It will take years for the nation to recover from last week’s earthquake and tsunami, even if nuclear disaster can be averted.

But freedom-seeking people in Libya indeed are in imminent danger. The fate that awaits those who opposed the dictator Moammar Gadhafi is foreshadowed in the accounts of three BBC journalists who endured an overnight captivity by Gadhafi loyalists.

“I can’t describe how bad it was,” cameraman Goktay Koraltay said on his network’s broadcast, referring to the treatment of detained rebels. “Most of them were hooded and handcuffed very tightly. They all had swollen hands and broken ribs. They were in agony, they were screaming.”

Watching Japan, we understand that all our brainpower and technology is no match against a double-barreled natural disaster.

Watching Libya, we wonder if we, meaning the global community and the United States, specifically, have even the wherewithal to stop a human-caused catastrophe from happening before our eyes. Fortunately, with the Thursday U.N. resolution for a no-fly zone, we’re going to try.

As citizens, we can be as aware of events as we want to be. The days when information came with the morning newspaper or the evening news are long gone. We can get text alerts and follow Twitter feeds and keep up with developments — real and rumored — all day and all night.

But with knowledge comes frustration and anxiety. Few of us have any control over migratory radiation plumes or encroaching armies.

Perhaps the best way to respond is to act boldly in the sphere in which we do have influence. The world may be spinning out of control, but we can help a neighbor. We in Kansas City can do little to stop torture in Libya, but surely there is something we can do to curtail murders on the East Side.

Remember that not all the news is bad. The World Health Organization reported recently that thanks to a step-up in malaria control programs, including the simple remedy of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, 11 African nations have seen a 50 percent reduction in either confirmed malaria cases or deaths. The assistance was made possible in large part by contributions from ordinary people.

Remember too that monumental events leave us with little time or cause to sweat the small stuff. That’s why we can stand in front of the full-body scanner, and manage a smile.