Some say the modern age began with an earthquake.

In 1755, Lisbon, a flourishing port city in Portugal, was struck by a devastating earthquake. Between the quake and the ensuing fires tens of thousands were killed and a beautiful city was destroyed. Why did it happen? Up until then, the going explanation had something to do with divine punishment – you suffer because of your sins. In Lisbon, however, theological explanation weren’t accepted, and it was the last significant public debate about the divine origins of natural disasters.

The public intellectuals of the day – Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant – weighed in on the disaster, questioning the very existence of divine justice. The no-nonsense mayor refused to see God’s hand behind the quake, and quickly put to death a trouble-maker preacher seeking to link the disaster with human sin. As it turns out, a number of churches were smashed in the earthquake, while a row of brothels were left standing. Intelligently-designed justice? Probably not. Maybe a case could be made…

If God’s hand is not behind natural evil, then it is simply the movement of a neutral natural world. About the time of Lisbon, the thinkers and doers of the day explored the implications that Nature’s mysteries may at some time yield their secrets, that someday we may predict earthquakes since we no longer treat them as the doings of a capricious God.

The modern age is, in large part, a story of human beings realizing that they are more in control of the world then they thought, that the rule of the people is preferable that of Czars and Kings, that science and predictions are more decent than the mysteries of a moody, unpredictable God, and that the free flow of information and business is better than the monopolizing of resources by elites. Even stubborn biology has been shown not to be destiny for women, gays, blacks and others once placed on the lower rungs of the natural order. For all of its pitfalls, modernity has been a march towards a sort of freedom.

The Lisbon earthquake, you might say, was the beginning of the public consciousness of human responsibility. “From that day onward” wrote political theorist Judith Shklar, “the responsibility for our suffering rested entirely with us and on an uncaring natural environment, where it has remained.” At the end of the modern age, and after the ‘death of God’, we face a different set of problems, though troublemaking preachers still abound.

This week a devastating earthquake rocked Pakistan and central Asia. Over thirty thousand people are feared dead. The devastation is tremendous. Mudslides in Guatemala have produced mass graves for hundreds. Thousands are unnecessarily dead. (Since the death toll in one day is ten times more than have died since the second Intifada, perhaps this week’s “Stand-up for Palestine” should have renamed itself “Stand-up for Pakistan”.) Some still claim God is behind slides and tsunamis, but we now see more clearly The Man behind the mess.

After Katrina, it will be interesting to see if Americans become more sensitive to disasters in other parts of the globe. After all, many countries, even Venezuela, offered to send aid to America after Katrina, so the logic of gifts ought to have us more attentive to similar plights around the world. After 9/11, an outpouring of support touched even the most Chomsky-hardened hearts. Get well cards, well-wishes and signs of solidarity flooded into New York from all over the world.

Six months later, an earthquake rocked Afghanistan, killing 1500. In December 2003, a devastating earthquake hit Iran, of Axis-of-Evil fame, killing over 30,000. How many Americans sent get well cards?

The natural disasters of time are in part of our own making. Humans have so changed the world since 1755 that modernity has instituted a second nature: natural disasters are never wholly natural. Human hands hide beneath the seemingly natural in cases like the hurricane, the melting ice caps, and even the earthquakes. It is poverty and capitalism’s “progress” that deliver us these bills in human lives.

Rousseau noticed this, and, arguing against Voltaire, called attention to the class division that had Lisbon’s poor living in flimsy houses. Indeed, the high death tolls in Iran, for example, can be blamed on shoddy building materials.

In Pakistan, the poor, trapped by remote geography, lie under debris as the government cannot marshal the resources to reach them in time. The mudslides in Guatemala have been blamed largely on deforestation, a desperate practice at times, orchestrated at others, which again discriminates specifically against the poor. Needless to say, the car-less, the careless, and the homeless of Katrina’s Southern tour can be blamed on government myopia regarding the poor. New Orleans residents, no longer Cajun and colorful, are revealed to be simply colored.

Kant’s response to the Lisbon earthquake was to note that war took a more devastating toll than the natural disasters. That may have been true before the World Wars, but we are now living in times when even our wars, even Iraq, do not kill as many people annually as the flu.

Consider: Francis Fukuyama’s famous book, The End of History, asserted that the war of ideas was substantially won—that human freedom, free markets and liberal democracy had vanquished, in theory if not in practice, its competitors: fascism, state socialism, communism. There is no thinking outside of the box of liberal capitalist democracy, because there is nothing outside of it but darkness and confusion: the Kremlin or the Koran.

Fukuyama, who spoke at Princeton last week, has broken with his fellow neo-cons over Iraq. The American plan to reweave the political fabric of the Middle East has hit a number of knotty snags: culture, clans and illiberal constitutions. A people can’t become democratic without the habits and practices of democratic institutions, like trusting one’s fellow citizens or working neutral court.

Turning Iraq from Dictatorship to Democracy is a fool’s errand. In remaking Iraq, Americans have only succeeded in deconstructing it, bringing freedom from tyranny with the least amount of planning imaginable: unrealism parading as heard-headed realism. Worst of all, Iraq sucked the money, manpower and attention away from a responsible reaction to Katrina.

Consistent conservatives like Fukuyama, very attentive to human limits, warn against schemes like command economies, Wars on Poverty and Wars on Terror. In remaking the world, freedom’s march has hit some potholes; our follies have taken us past our limits, to melting ice caps, deforested landscapes and faulty towers. Wars of choice have left us without many options when real disaster strikes. God is no longer to blame, but we are still most certainly responsible.

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