Much of the world knows the day after Christmas as Boxing Day. Why? Many explanations exist and you can look them up on the big wide wonderful world of the web, but it seems, as with so much else, our British cousins get the credit for extending this holiday around the world. Boxing Day seems not to have survived well in North America, a bit in Canada where it provides an excuse for "50% off everything sales!", and not at all in the USA. In much of the other former British colonies, it has hung on and provides an excuse for another holiday.
I ramble on about this because this was the topic of conversation I was having with the Danish Ambassador at his very pleasant residence in Jakarta on December 26, 2004, when my cellphone went off. As I have written before, it is not a good sign to get called at 3 am or on your day off: rarely will you get a call from the Nobel Prize Committee, the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes, or a solicitor relaying that your long lost cousin in Australia died and left you as sole inheritor of the world's biggest sheep ranch. This call kept to the rule. It came from the Deputy USAID Director in Jakarta; he could not get in touch with our people in Sumatra, and had seen reports of a large earthquake, maybe over a 7.0. I remember saying, "That's a tsunami risk. Call the folks in Hawaii at the US Geological Service and see what they have to say." He called back about ten or fifteen minutes later to say that the USGS estimated the earthquake at least an 8.0 and probably higher (eventually, it came in at over 9.0). They were issuing a tsunami warning to the Pacific Region.
In my previous incarnation as Diplomad 1.0, I wrote a great deal about what came after that seismic jolt. Those days and events have stayed with me since then. What stayed was not just the massive and breath-taking destruction that I saw in Banda Aceh and elsewhere on Sumatra. For me, the reaction to the earthquake demonstrated the fallacy of the cultural relativists. The aid to the victims came overwhelmingly and most quickly from Western, yes, Christian countries. The USA, Australia, UK, and Canada led the pack in providing assistance to the battered Muslims of Sumatra. I will never forget New Year's eve that year, coming out of the embassy at 2 am, working on getting assistance to the victims, and seeing Jakarta partying "like it was 1999." Foreigners, Western foreigners, were by far the most concerned about events in Sumatra and the most willing to do something about it.
The US and Australian military were absolutely superb in moving quickly and effectively to save thousands of lives in a massive relief operation. Let's give credit where credit is due: the Aussie C-130s were the first into Banda Aceh and did a great job throughout the relief effort. Remember this was about three months after a one-ton car bomb had been set off in front of the Australian embassy in Jakarta. Muslim terrorists had tried to kill the Australian embassy staff, and three months later that same staff sought to save Muslim lives. The UN, despite receiving huge amounts of donations, was spectacularly ineffective, and had the people of Banda Aceh had to wait on the UN, tens-of-thousands more of them would have died.
The much-reviled George Bush and John Howard were the heroes of the day, leading the relief effort and challenging the UN and the rest of the world to meet the standard set by the US and Australia.