It’s Monday morning and I am sitting at the computer ruminating on what to write for this week’s column. Generally, at a time like this, the blood will be high and my opinions and thoughts clear and organised.
This week, however, I find myself in a complete muddle. I have just read a piece by Robert Booth published last night on the Guardian website. It is part of the paper’s coverage of the terrible events in Haiti following the earthquake. It details the fact that just 60 miles from the epicentre of the quake and the carnage it unleashed, massive cruise ships are docked and allowing their passengers to disembark on Haiti and enjoy the tropical paradise.
Their activities on the island include access to jet skis, barbecues on the beach and rum cocktails being delivered to them as they lounge in the sunshine.
My initial reaction to this excellent, balanced article was revulsion. How could these people bear to be enjoying such luxury and opulence when less than a hundred miles away dead bodies are piled in the streets and families, on the verge of starvation and almost crazy with grief, search the rubble for the corpses of their loved ones? Was this the ultimate physical expression of the divide between rich and poor on Earth, the reality of capitalist injustice writ large on the landscape of the tiny Caribbean island so often bedevilled by tragedy? Certainly, on first inspection, this would seem to be the case but further reading coloured my judgement.
A number of the passengers were interviewed by Mr Booth and expressed their revulsion at being anywhere near the island at such a time. They gave the impression that their conscience was giving them hell at living the high life on a private beach with 12-ft high fences and armed guards at the gate to prevent the starving from spoiling the party.
Others saw nothing wrong with their presence on Labadee beach and expressed a dogged determination to enjoy their cruise whatever the circumstances. I sat in judgement on those who were going to plough on and internally praised those who felt a moral twinge.
The author then revealed that the ships themselves were carrying food aid to be distributed in Port-au-Prince. Another layer to the dilemma. All in all, more than 130 pallets are to be delivered by the various ships, which will dock in the next few days.
Those pallets will contain much-needed supplies of rice, milk and beans. Add to this the fact that the cruise company has pledged that all the proceeds of the visits will go directly to the relief effort and the whole situation is looking far from black and white. Also, an additional $1 million dollars will be given by the company to the cause and that there are large numbers of Haitian people employed at the beach resort, whose extended families depend on their income to live. The report stated that along with 230 directly employed, a further 300 benefit from the proceeds generated by the craft market, where wealthy tourists can purchase locally produced goods.
These conflicting realities have left my moral compass spinning wildly and showing no sign of stopping any time soon. Is it simply the proximity of those enjoying the cruise that has angered me so much? Certainly, any rational consideration of the situation would hold me equally guilty for my enjoyment of the benefits of my labour as they are for reaping the rewards of theirs.
My wife and I are considering going to see a band play in Glasgow tonight. Should we stay at home and donate the money we would have spent to the relief effort? We have made a donation already but is it enough? Have we the right to enjoy ourselves while this kind of suffering exists in the world? Where do we draw the line on this issue?
The homeless who beg on the streets of towns and cities all over the world depend on the guilt felt by passers-by to feed and clothe themselves. I walk the streets, see the homeless man or woman, feel bad that they are in that situation, even though I have not directly caused it, and give them money. If 20 other people succumb to this societal guilt then the person may be able to secure food and some shelter for the night.
This exploitation of guilt does nothing to sort out the situation in the long run. In being aware of this, we are no less susceptible to the guilt so we give the money. Similarly with the current crisis in Haiti, the money we give provides temporary respite but is ultimately as useful as a band-aid for an amputee.
Haiti has been a political basket case for many years now. If this situation had been addressed there would be far fewer problems now. Just like the homeless on our streets, the disadvantaged of the world will continue to suffer until direct political solutions are found.
There must be a will on the part of the majority to build a fair and just society and this will is far from evident in politics today. Will the homeless be on the political agenda during the next general election in Ireland? I think not.
So I sit here and type, slaving away over a computer and looking out the window at the grim Scottish weather and I tell myself that I am somehow better than those cruise tourists docked in Haiti enjoying the sunshine, tucking into a barbeque and bathing in the blue waters of the Caribbean.
I am fooling myself of course because I, Iike them, am a cog in the system that perpetuates injustice. A sobering thought for a Monday morning and one that will fuel the spinning of the moral compass for some time to come.