On NPR's All Things Considered broadcast on May 19th, Robert Siegel and Melissa Block report on the one-week anniversary of the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Sichuan province in China. With alarms and sirens to mark the time, China is starting three days of mourning of the tragic loss of life (although the death toll will probably continue to rise, right now CNN.com pegs it at over 40,000). The loss of life is truly mind-boggling, and the amount of rebuilding and resettling will occupy China for years.
In the first 30 seconds of the NPR broadcast linked above, Melissa Block states that "5/12 is now China's 9/11". This is not an unusual comparison, as it has been used numerous times before to denote a nation-altering disaster--usually terrorism related, such as Spain's 3/11 and London's 7/5 bombings. Those events, for those countries, are comparable to 9/11 for the United States. But large natural disasters, however huge the loss of life, aren't necessarily nation-altering. They also don't necessarily sear themselves into the psyche of those who didn't immediately experience them.
An event like the 2004 tsunami was a nation-altering--perhaps in some ways a world-altering--event. It was huge, unexpected, and unusual--something that hasn't happened in generations. An earthquake in the United States that killed over 40,000 people would be a huge, unusual event.
Unfortunately, in China, earthquakes with massive loss of life aren't unusual events. In fact, within living memory, an magnitude 7.5 earthquake in northeastern China had a death toll of over 240,000 people (which is actually a little higher than the official death toll for the tsunami). In 1974, a Chinese earthquake killed 20,000. Farther back, but still less than 100 years ago, an earthquake in 1927 killed more than 40,900 Chinese; an earthquake in 1920 killed more than 200,000 Chinese.
The tragedy of 9/11 was not the loss of life alone--although that was heartrending and horrifying. Rather, it was the fact that the United States had been attacked on our mainland, by an enemy almost completely unknown to the general public, out of a clear blue sky. It radically changed our society, our foreign policy, and our political landscape. We have declared war against terrorism, which is a generational battle if there ever was one. Comparing it to huge natural disasters is like comparing apples and lima beans.
This does not lessen the tragedy of the May 12, 2008 earthquake. But I don't foresee huge changes in Chinese politics or society based on it, if past earthquakes are any indication. Maybe I'm wrong--maybe the global connected age will make a bigger difference in this event than in previous ones. Only time will tell.