Hannibal and Me: life lessons from history

Thoughts on human nature after Japan

They form orderly lines. They throw no tantrums. They do not loot or take advantage of their fellow sufferers. They bear what fate has presented them, even after watching loved ones swept away in brown sludge, even as radioactive clouds snow on them. They do so because of who they are, as individuals and as Japanese, and because they understand that however bad it gets, they must avoid making it even worse through their own actions.

Some 50 of them even stayed in the reactors until commanded to return, like modern samurai, fighting the splitting atoms so that less death may issue forth, knowing that they will suffer and die because of it. Radiation, too, is a divine wind, a kamikaze. In form less Homeric, more insidious, it yet demands the same of the samurai.

They are individuals, yes. But they are also members of a culture, and there is a shape to their response. Isn’t there always? People behaved differently in Port-au-Prince. And again in New Orleans. And in Christchurch.

I once happened to find myself living in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak. It was a fascinating time. (This was one of the articles I wrote.) The virus largely hit the different “regions” of China — Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and the mainland. And each place revealed itself to be not only “Chinese” but unique, in ways that surprised even those living there.

I recall (what not everybody there may perhaps now choose to remember) that in some of the Taiwanese hospitals, some (not all) of the nurses and staff fled the virus, yielding to their fear, abandoning those who had come there in need. For them, the individual and the family was all there was. There was no community, no neighborliness, no society. Yes, they were aware that they were thus making the situation worse, by spreading the virus. But worse-for-others did not count.

The Singaporeans responded as expected: with ruthless and relentless efficiency, cordoning off and quarantining with no regard for those being separated from loved ones, whether they were confirmed infected or not. The rules were draconian, but nobody broke them, nobody pleaded special treatment. The individual was entirely subordinated to the group, and Singapore suffered least as a result.

The mainlanders also showed their ruthless side. Uniformed cadres barricaded entire towns, cutting them off from the world as in an Albert Camus novel. But the un-uniformed mainlanders did not respect these rules as the Singaporeans accepted those of their government. Individually, many (though not all) tried to escape, evade, be the exception. Whereas the Singaporean authorities chose merciless truth to gain and keep credibility, by reporting every case, the mainland Chinese defaulted to their customary secrecy, and nobody believed anything at all. Singapore was harsh but trustworthy, the mainland simply harsh. And the mainland suffered the most as a result.

And then there were the Chinese of Hong Kong. How surprised we, the expats, were by their response. How surprised even the Hong Kong Chinese were. Each nurse and doctor and customs official and neighbor, it seemed, did his duty. And they, too, chose unforgiving truth, reporting every turn for the worse so that we believed them when they finally announced the turn for the better.

And yet the Hong Kong Chinese were not like the Singaporeans. In Hong Kong, they did make exceptions in their quarantines, they did wait before cordoning off housing blocks, because they balanced the suffering of the individuals inside against the interests of the society outside. Was it civic values picked up, unwittingly, from the former colonial master? Was it something else? Something made them different. Hong Kong suffered more than Singapore, but less than Taiwan and the mainland. And when it was over, everyone in Hong Kong was proud.

Last year, we debated the topic of heroism here on The Hannibal Blog. As usual when intellectuals debate anything, the subject recedes until everybody wishes it had never been forced into hiding. And yet we all intuited all along that you know heroism when you see it.