Nameless | Inquirer Opinion

Nameless

05:32 AM March 21, 2011

I CAN’T understand the criticisms about Japanese secretiveness uttered on CNN by some American officials and guest commentators as Japanese authorities rushed to forestall a nuclear holocaust last week. The fact that helicopters were spraying tons of water into the smoking plants, one said, was a sure sign things were much worse than the Japanese officials were making it out to be. Clearly, the commentator said, that wasn’t the first thing you’d do in the face of that crisis, that was the last. It was a sign of desperation.

The Japanese government, the others also said, would do better to be more forthcoming about the extent of the crisis. There was also the foreign community to think about.

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My first reaction was to marvel at the cheekiness of it. Have these people forgotten that not too long ago, they went through the experience of being lied to by their government about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Have they forgotten that they themselves as government officials had directly taken a hand in that lie, trotting out fake reports and hiding real ones in defense of it, and as media practitioners had unwittingly—or perfectly wittingly in the case of Fox Network—spread that lie, conscripting an entire nation into supporting a gratuitous invasion of another country? The only comparable case of it was when William Randolph Hearst deliberately and cynically manufactured a threat from Spain at the close of the 19th century to justify a war with it and grab its colonies, including the Philippines.

And you’d like to preach to another country, one that has been pulling through heroically in the face of one of the most mind-boggling catastrophes ever to visit humankind, about the merits of being honest to oneself and to others? At the very least, the Japanese government’s lack of forthrightness, if that is so at all, can devastate only its people. The US government’s lack of forthrightness, to put it felicitously, has devastated a people overseas. Well, that is a good reason to forget about one’s own culpability, when the nasty effects of lying are felt only by others. To this day, the US has yet to apologize to the kin of the Iraqi dead.

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I grant honesty is always the best policy. People have a right to know to make an informed choice. But you also have to weigh that against the dangers of speculation and panicking the public, a thing that’s bound to cause more deaths than the catastrophe itself. Outside looking in, you’ve got to be impressed by the way the Japanese have handled their emergency so far, the lack of hysteria despite the number of deaths and the repeated explosions in the nuclear plants, the orderly way people are going about their business or evacuating Tokyo.

What has particularly impressed me is the story about the operators who have stayed behind to man the troubled plants. They were originally called the “Nameless 50” because that was how many of them there were and because they were unnamed. That number has apparently climbed to 150 and even 200 in some reports as others have volunteered as well. Their job specifically calls for pumping seawater on exposed nuclear fuel to prevent a full-blown meltdown that could spread radiation to a far vaster area.

The New York Times News Service described what they are doing thus: “They crawl through labyrinths of equipment in utter darkness pierced only by their flashlights, listening for periodic explosions as hydrogen gas escaping from crippled reactors ignites on contact with air. They breathe through uncomfortable respirators or carry heavy oxygen tanks on their backs. They wear white, full-body jumpsuits with snug-fitting hoods that provide scant protection from the invisible radiation sleeting through their bodies.”

As of last report, the volunteers were enduring five times the maximum exposure to radiation allowed American workers in nuclear plants.

I do not know what will happen to them. I do know there were tremendous casualties from the conscripts who were brought in to bury Chernobyl though the Soviet authorities tried to limit their exposure to radiation by rapid rotation. Most of them died within months of their tour of duty.

These levels of self-sacrifice, or suicidal behavior, are particularly eye-popping when seen from our eyes. We do have a capacity for self-sacrifice too. We do have a capacity to brave great dangers too, which is in fact what some of our OFWs are doing in volatile areas, but for family. We will risk everything for family, but not much else. The Japanese will do so for things that extend well beyond that. They will do it for the good of Japan and the Japanese people, a thing so ingrained in their psyche it no longer carries the aspect of duty or command, it is reflex action. You can’t get any deeper sense of country than that.

It is behavior not unlike the one shown by the “Tora, Tora” pilots, the ones that aimed themselves at American warships toward the close of the War in tribute to the emperor, who was the living symbol or embodiment of the nation, or empire. A stern culture? Or indeed a cruel one? Possibly. But it is also an awe-inspiring one, it is also a heroic one. It is at least something we can learn from, we whose natural instinct is to gather family and take to foreign shores at the first signs of danger. If, or when, Japan pulls through from its worst disaster since Hiroshima and gets back on its feet, reenergizing itself and impressing the world once more with its capacity to rebuild from the ruins, it will be because of the Nameless 50, or the Nameless 200, whatever their number may be, who stayed behind and did what they had to do to make that possible. I don’t know what will happen to them.

But I doubt they’ll remain nameless for very long.

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TAGS: crisis, Disasters (general), heroism, nuclear accidents, safety of citizens
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