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Fearing winter

Alan Braunholtz

Jolts upset neat arrangements, creating different patterns. The mental bumps hurt the most.Half hidden in its newspaper box, a photo peered out and dragged me back, before dismantling a few internal barriers and pushing a switch that should have been activated weeks ago. A simple photo of a woman holding her child in a makeshift shelter of plastic and sticks after the earthquake in Pakistan.A stunning iconic image really. Plain shades of gray and a modest headscarf emphasized the mother’s strong features and distracted stare as she lifts her baby. The transparent plastic sheeting defies its limits, appearing to wrap a jumble of possessions and mother with a textured softness. The child turns away, faceless and clad in a bright orange coat and colorful ski hat. You can check out Gurinder Osan’s photo on the Oct 21 cover of the The New York Times.It has all the depth and symbolism of a Renaissance masterpiece of the Virgin Mary. You don’t have to be a believer to know a symbol’s power. Emotions tumbles down, switching on an empathy that had been embarrassingly absent.Here we’re getting ready for another hedonistic season of skiing and riding. We’re fixing boots, buying skis, finding the right sunglasses while waiting impatiently for the snow to come. We worry it won’t be a good snow year.About 550,000 families without homes or shelter in the mountains of Kashmir are also waiting for the snow, and it will probably kill many of them. They have about two weeks to prepare for winter. After Dec. 1, they will have all they can get. Then the snows and weather cut them off. There aren’t enough cold weather tents commercially available in the world to house these people. New orders won’t be completed until midwinter, which will be too late. Short on tents and funds, aid organizations are asking the people for any ideas on what may work for them. Nails, hammers, corrugated iron, plastic sheeting and anything that can be jerry rigged into a warm shelter needs to be shuttled into the mountains now. The stronger survivors are making the scramble down valleys blocked by landslides to the valley aid stations but many, including the old, the injured and the young, are still up there.For some reason, this disaster didn’t trigger much of a response from the international community. I guess we’re all disastered out. We’re a day late and a dollar short compared to last Christmas’ tsunami. About 80,000 people are dead with three times as many displaced as by the tsunami. It is, according to The New York Times’ quote of the U.N. emergency center in Islamabad: “The most difficult humanitarian crisis ever.” The U.N. estimated $312 million for immediate relief, which has now climbed to $500 million. So far they’ve received little more than $90 million in pledges. I’m not sure if the armies of the world have stockpiles of winter tents, but now would be a good time to take a gamble and dig into them. It would probably be the best thing our military could do to win the war of public opinion we’re fighting.The blocked roads and inaccessible terrain make helicopter supply vital. A week after the quake, only 80 helicopters were in the country. The sight of huge U.S. Army twin-rotored Chinooks flying over this land of jihad and militant camps, bringing relief supplies and smiles to the conservative Muslim locals, did more than any PR brochures or radio broadcasts could. Pity we couldn’t have got more there. Helicopters are a poster child for the split personality of technology. They save you or kill you. It all depends on the human element that controls them.Islamic groups flooded to the area in large numbers. Some brought supplies, and others came to lecture honest farmers and shepherds, telling them their evil ways offended God and brought this disaster down. I’m not sure how they explain the destruction of all the mosques and deaths in the collapsed religious schools, and during Ramadan. Sounds familiar to some preachers here. It seems fundamentalists of all religions have a lot more in common than they’d like to admit.Empathy is a natural part of us. Children will instinctively comfort each other and their parents if they are acting hurt or upset. My dogs do it, too, and sometimes even to animals that they should be chasing. It’s quite strange. We can turn it on or off. Animals we eat, enemies and even strangers don’t turn it on. Members of our community do.Our ancestors came from small groups where a sense of solidarity, trust, loyalty and competition all mingled together. Socialist and free-market ideologues don’t want to see the parts of this mix that don’t agree with their theories. Communism failed because it ignored the competitive and selfish part of human nature. Capitalism tries to focus only on the individual, also creating a society that doesn’t feel quite right.Biology holds a short leash to our behavior, and we’re a gregarious, caring animal. This valley feels such a great place to live because we really do have a community here. We meet each other at work, at play, at our schools and at the shops. That is pretty rare these days.Globalization’s challenge will be creating societies where our natural empathy trumps our xenophobia. Technology works both ways here: A photo of a mother instead of a madman. It doesn’t take much to raise or lower the barriers.I guess I’ve got enough skis for my winter already, and I’ll see what Oxfam America (www.oxfam.org) can do with the difference. Strange that an icon of one religion evokes such a response to help people of a different religion halfway across the world, and I don’t believe in either.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily. Vail, Colorado


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