Fighting Words

Long Live Democratic Seismology

Chile survived its huge earthquake relatively well. Iran would be a different story.

Destruction in Talcahuano, Chile

In his days on the staid old London Times of the 1930s, Claud Cockburn won an in-house competition for the most boring headline by coming up with “Small Earthquake in Chile: Not Many Dead.” The shelf-life of this joke—which, I hasten to add, was at the expense of the Times, not the people of Chile—was so durable that when the anti-Allende and pro-Kissinger historian Alistair Horne came to write his book on the Unidad Popular government of the 1970s, he called it Small Earthquake in Chile. At approximately the same time, composing his memorable epitaph for Salvador Allende, Gabriel García Márquez spoke of the likable peculiarities of the Chileans and exaggerated his non-magical realism by only a few degrees when he said:

Chile has an earth tremor on the average of once every two days and a devastating earthquake every presidential term. The least apocalyptic of geologists think of Chile not as a country of the mainland, but as a cornice of the Andes in a misty sea, and believe that the whole of its national territory is condemned to disappear in some future cataclysm.

Seismology in this decade is already emerging as the most important new department of socioeconomics and politics. The simple recognition that nature is master and that the crust of our planet is highly volatile has been thrown into some relief by the staggering 250,000 butcher’s bill exacted from the people of Haiti by a single terrestrial spasm, and by the relative survival capacity of Chileans even when hit by a quake of superior magnitude. Gone are the boring-headlined stories about the magnitude of the quake and the likely epicenter. The effects of upheavals of the earth can now be quite expertly studied, and even predicted, along a series of intersecting graphs that measure them against demography, income level, and—this is a prediction on my part—the vitality of democratic institutions.

Professor Amartya Sen made a reputation some decades ago for pointing out that in the 20th century no serious famine had occurred in an open or democratic society, however poor. In the classic case that he studied—that of Bengal under British colonial occupation in the 1940s—tens of thousands of people had starved to death in areas that had overflowing granaries. It was not a shortage of food, but of information and of proper administration, that had led to the disaster. The Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, as was pointed out by Robert Conquest in his book The Harvest of Sorrow, was the result of a dictatorial policy rather than any failure of the crops.

Taking this as an approximate analogy or metaphor, people are beginning to notice that the likelihood of perishing in an earthquake, or of being utterly dispossessed by it, is as much a function of the society in which one lives as it is of proximity to a fault. A most intriguing article in the New York Times of Feb. 24, titled “Disaster Awaits Cities In Earthquake Zones,” pointed out that millions of people now live in unplanned and jerry-built mega-cities—such as Istanbul, Turkey; Karachi, Pakistan; Katmandu, Nepal; and Lima, Peru—that are earthquake-prone and could easily become the sites of mass extermination. The instruments of this would be what Dr. Roger Bilham, a seismologist at the University of Colorado, calls “an unrecognized weapon of mass destruction: houses.” Across the world, millions of people either live or work in structures that have been termed “rubble in waiting.”

The article told the story of increasing efforts by Turkish and Chinese authorities to “proof” their cities against future disasters. Turkey and China, while by no means perfect examples of democracy and transparency, have become much more responsive to popular awareness and protest in the recent past. Chileans have long expected their government to be prepared for seismic events, while Haitians are so ground-down and immiserated by repression and corruption that a democratic demand for such protection would seem an almost ethereal prospect.

This general point was specified in a dramatic way by a sentence buried in the middle of the Times article. “In Tehran, Iran’s capital, Dr. Bilham has calculated that one million people could die in a predicted quake similar in intensity to the one in Haiti.” (Italics added.) Tehran is built in “a nest of surrounding geologic faults,” and geologists there have long besought the government to consider moving the unprotected and crumbling capital, or at least some of its people, in anticipation of the inevitable disaster.

But the Iranian regime, as we know, has other priorities entirely, and it has worked very hard to insulate not its people from earthquakes, but itself from its people. I remember sitting in one of Tehran’s epic traffic snarls a few years ago and thinking, “What if a big one was to hit now?” This horrible thought was succeeded by two even more disturbing ones: What if the giant shudder came at night, when citizens were packed tightly into unregulated and code-free apartment buildings? And what would happen to the secret nuclear facilities, both under the ground and above it? I know what the mullahs would say—that the will of Allah was immutable. But what would the survivors think when they looked around the (possibly irradiated) ruins and saw how disposable their leaders had considered them to be?

This outcome would be incomparably worse than the consequences of any intervention to arrest the Iranian nuclear program. I have droned on about this before, and I now drone on again. While the “negotiations” on Iran’s weaponry are being artificially protracted by an irrational and corrupt regime, it should become part of our humanitarianism and our public diplomacy to warn the Iranian people of the man-made reasons that the results of a natural calamity would be hideously multiplied in their case. This, together with the offer of immediate help in earthquake-proofing, enhanced from our experiences in California, is nothing less than a moral responsibility. Together with the cross-border implications of an earthquake plus ill-maintained covert nuclear facilities, it also drives home the point that the future of Iran is not the “internal affair” of a regime that dreams luridly of one apocalypse while inviting a cataclysm of a quite different sort. Down with the earthquake deniers! Long live democratic seismology!