The politics of miracles

When systems have failed us, politics have failed us, and ideologies have failed us, it feels comforting to rely in miracles. The rhetoric of miracles gives us the illusion that nothing is actually in our control and bestows the ones with actual power with the luxury of avoiding responsibility. Yet for those who survived the earthquake, a lifetime of economic, physical and psychological trauma awaits them.

Late at night, I am anxiously strolling through social media, checking for updates about the İzmir earthquake. My feed is filled with pictures of rescued kids and animals with the word “miracle” stamped in almost every post. In most cases the word is used as a hashtag. #Miracle: as if to signify a trend or to make it easier to find the cases for eager social media users. Looking for a miracle in the gram? Come to İzmir, Turkey where an earthquake hit and 140 people lost their lives and thousands more lost their homes and livelihoods. But hey, there are miracles!. I cannot stop but think: If survivors are miracles, then what are the victims, cursed? Is there any room for human error, accountability or structural reform in the land of miracles? Or are we just hashtags waiting for our turn?

The world is in the midst of an existential crisis. Increased violence, racism, poverty and the climate crisis topped with a pandemic with a side of U.S. elections are enough to cause dread and anxiety amongst the strongest of us all. We are desperate to hear some good news and believe in the kindness of humanity. Seeing a K-9 search and rescue dog saving a cat from the debris of a collapsed building; watching a fireman pulling a bunny from the rubble touches us. And then there are the kids. Unbearable to watch though impossible to get our eyes off, the efforts to save Elif Perinçek (3) and Ayda Gezgin (4) glued the Turkish nation to their screens, large and small. Elif was saved 65 hours after the quake, and Ayda after an excruciating 91. Their resilience and the tireless efforts of the firefighters and rescue teams were astonishing. Businessmen were quick to offer to pay for their lifelong education expenses. Authorities were fast to declare that there is nothing wrong with Ayda and that “she just wants some Ayran and meatballs.” It was apparent that we were desperate for a happy ending. 

Yet in the midst of happy endings, Elif lost her 10 year old brother Umut, and Ayda her mother. State and local agencies and civil society organizations continue to ask for donations ranging from the simplest of things like hygiene kits and hot meals, to bigger items like rent aid for the de-homed as thousands stay in tent cities where heat is reported to be lacking and women were to do without bras and tampons because they were too embarrassed even to ask for them. Meanwhile, meatball restaurants started to use Ayda’s image for advertisement and coffee mugs stamped with a drawing of Elif holding a firefighter’s finger started to pop up for sale. Idolization of survivors quickly led the way to their commodification. Miracles make for the best merchandise. 

Yet for those who survived the earthquake, a lifetime of economic, physical and psychological trauma awaits them no matter how miraculous their stories seem to be or how inspiring it feels to share them with a hashtag or two. Experts warn that seeing their own images in the media now or in the future might trigger trauma responses for survivors, especially for kids. There is also a legal side to all this sharing: Istanbul Bar Association has stated that broadcasting recognizable images of minor victims is actually unlawful according to Turkish press laws. 

When systems have failed us, politics have failed us, and ideologies have failed us, it feels comforting to rely in miracles. The rhetoric of miracles gives us the illusion that nothing is actually in our control and bestows the ones with actual power with the luxury of avoiding responsibility.  Earthquakes may not be preventable but how we prepare for them may prevent them from becoming tragedies. Turkey is among the world's most active seismic zones and has experienced massive traumas like the Van earthquake of 2011 and the İzmit earthquake of 1999 where more than seventeen thousand lives were lost. Yet no major sentencing has been issued for faulty contractors, and no major resignations came from officials. Instead, the public was left to shoulder the bulk of the burden with earthquake taxes introduced. 

After days of miracle talk, a new hashtag started to appear on Turkish social media. Users asked “where are the earthquake taxes?” Taking on the individual expenses of injured kids, adopting pets from a disaster zone, donating money to relief efforts or sending meatballs to a hospital room…All done in good faith but are no more than band-aids for a wound that will bleed for a long time. Disaster management is too serious of an issue to be left to good-hearted individuals or to miracles. What we need is accountability, structural reform, and a system of solid checks and balances. 

#Wherearetheearthquaketaxes (#depremvergilerinerde), now here’s a hashtag to follow.