The tsunami that struck Asia and Africa on St. Stephen’s Day wreaked a considerable amount of havoc, but no one knows, even approximately, how many people actually died.  In the first few weeks, it looked as if the grisly total would add up to about 150,000 victims, but, as politicians in Indonesia began to see the advantages, the figures have crept up to perhaps 175,000.

Nonetheless, even 150,000 dead in a single day is a horrifying number.  People all over the developed world took the news hard, as they stayed glued to CNN, watching for ever more graphic bits of footage, listening for even sadder tales of children snatched from their mothers’ arms.  “What’s it up to now, Charlie?” I can almost hear their wives calling out from the kitchen.

When the tsunami struck, I was in Siena without a television set, and, though I had skimmed the front page of the Corriere, I did not grasp the dimensions of the catastrophe until I reached Naples on December 30.  In Italy, the New Year’s Eve celebrations were supposed to be more muted this year, out of respect for the victims, but the explosions going off in Naples were enough to flatten the tires of parked cars and start trash fires all over the city.  If that is Naples’ idea of muted, I do not want to be there when they have a really good time.

Some holiday parties in Europe and the United States were cancelled in honor of the event.  I do not give or attend New Year’s Eve parties, but I should not have cancelled any plans for the sake of a far-off natural disaster.  I do not know anyone who died, and I do not know anyone who knew anyone.  It was 150,000 strangers who died.  That is surely not an unusual event.  After all, how many human beings die on the planet every day?  One calculation I have discovered puts it at just shy of 150,000, roughly the same number as died in the tsunami.  That adds up to roughly 55 million people per year.  Such figures make John Donne’s famous sermon sound ridiculous.  If each man’s death diminishes me by even a small particle, there would not be much left by the end of a decade.  The truth is that we are more affected by the death of a pet hamster than we are by the death of 150,000 strangers to whom we are not bound by ties of history, kinship, or religion.

That most people agree with this cold-blooded conclusion is evident from all the national news reports.  The Italian press was filled with heart-rending stories about killed and missing Italians; the BBC focused on British victims; American newspapers and networks talked mostly of Americans.  One Islamic physicians’ group maintained its religious identity by saying that jihad was more important than ministering to the victims.  What this means is clear: We feel little sorrow for the sufferings of strangers, but, if we are stirred up by the yellow press, we will clutch at anything to establish an imaginary bond of sympathy.

The “pornography of compassion,” as I have described the phenomenon in The Morality of Everyday Life, is one of the hallmarks of the liberal mind-set.  When the Lisbon earthquake wiped out a goodly part of the Portuguese capital in 1755, Voltaire rejected the cheery optimism he had imbibed from Leibniz and began railing against human suffering.  He also, in a private letter, exulted that so many priests had been killed.  Scratch an humanitarian, and you almost always find an anti-Christian.  Samuel Johnson, by contrast, was at first skeptical about the numbers and, when they proved to be more or less correct, still refused to jump on the humanitarian bandwagon.  The word he reserved for such enthusiasms was cant, and what was cant in 1755 is cant today.

Voltaire’s sanctimonious poem on the “Lisbon Earthquake” led directly to his greatest anti-Christian squib, Candide, and we have been plagued ever since by the cynical sentimentalism that raises trillions of dollars to help strangers while poisoning us against the needs of family, neighbors, and friends.  The Christian Dr. Johnson taught us that suffering and death are part of the human condition, and blaming God for our misery or pretending it is not so will not change that condition.

There is nothing wrong in Americans giving of their abundance to the victims of African genocide or Asian tidal waves, but there is something dreadfully wrong in the pretense that we care deeply.  The more we flatter ourselves with such fantasies of universal compassion, the less room we have in our hearts for the suffering humanity we meet in our own hometowns.  It is easier to write a check to a telethon than to carry supper to a shut-in.  Groups such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society are to be applauded for doing what they can to discharge the obligations of Christian charity to people in their own communities.  We leave it to liberals to neglect their own families while saving the world’s children.  Mother Teresa, when a Milwaukee woman offered to come and help the poor in Calcutta, sagely advised her to find Calcutta in Milwaukee.  Charity begins at home.