As the world watches in sadness and admiration the tragedy of natural disaster in Japan and the courageous and civilized response of the Japanese, and beholds also the demeaning spectacle of utter pusillanimity that has been generated by events in Libya, my thoughts return to the discussions I had about American exceptionalism with Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru in these cyber-pages a year ago. There cannot be anyone not moved and impressed by the stoicism, solidity, and bravery of the entire population of the afflicted areas of Japan, as thousands have died, tens of thousands have been left homeless, hundreds of thousands are threatened by radiation and other problems, and none have looted, or even, which would be more forgivable, panicked or, as far as can be seen, engaged even in self-pity or indignities of any kind.
With the world watching, in a national ordeal inflicted by nature, of which there was no warning and for which there could have been no preparation, much less rehearsal, the Japanese have responded with a calm, dignity, courage, and Samaritanly generosity that cannot be simulated or artificially improvised, and that marks a nationality of immense distinction. It is inconceivable that Japan, whatever its agonies, has not earned and won the heightened respect of the whole world in increasing measure with each day of the cataract of earthquakes, floods, nuclear seepage, and disintegration of services that has afflicted that nation. With the selfless heroism that was so evident as combat approached the Home Islands of Japan in 1944 and 1945, and which produced 100 percent casualty rates in Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but is now deployed spontaneously to the noblest and most incontestable human causes of survival and help to the endangered, Japan sets a standard of conduct that commands the homage of all.
Comparisons are always apt to be invidious, and this one is in some respects odious, and there can be no question of the generally admirable response of Americans to natural disaster, but I have found it hard not to think of Hurricane Katrina. Pres. George W. Bush paid a heavy price in the polls and in public esteem generally, from which his administration did not recover and he has only recovered personally in retirement, with a good look at his successor and a read of his very engaging memoir. His behavior was unpresidential, and “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” ranks in the annals of presidential malapropisms with subsequent lapidary utterances from the same source, such as, but not confined to (with a mouthful of food for emphasis), “Yo, Blair!” and, in reference to the American economy, among more obvious candidates for such a description and state of insecurity, “The sucker could go down.” But, in the abstract, commending officials, greeting an ally (even if Presidents Roosevelt and Reagan would have been a bit more ceremonious in salutations to Mr. Churchill and Mrs. Thatcher), and warning of imminent danger to the country, are not bad things to do, even if, in the words of The New Yorker magazine, they were “things that could be better said.”