Japan’s 127 million people reside on a rocky archipelago roughly the size of California. In this inhospitable environment vulnerable to seismic calamity, they have built one of the world’s most prosperous and innovative societies. We rarely think about that accomplishment, in part because Japan is such a tough economic competitor. In its way, this only underscores the scope of the accomplishment.
Japan is suffering now from the combined effects of tsunami, earthquake, and multiple nuclear disasters. It will recover and thrive, because the real rock on which the country was built is the ingenuity and grit of the Japanese people.
We see evidence of that in the incredible bravery of the nuclear technicians and firefighters working desperately to contain the disaster,
particularly the fifty technicians at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station profiled in a remarkable New York Times story today. As the Times makes clear, nuclear technicians closer to home display the same readiness to take great risks:
Nuclear reactor operators say that their profession is typified by the same kind of esprit de corps found among firefighters and elite military units. Lunchroom conversations at reactors frequently turn to what operators would do in a severe emergency.
The consensus is always that they would warn their families to flee before staying at their posts to the end, said Michael Friedlander, a former senior operator at three American power plants for a total of 13 years.
“You’re certainly worried about the health and safety of your family, but you have an obligation to stay at the facility,” he said. “There is a sense of loyalty and camaraderie when you’ve trained with guys, you’ve done shifts with them for years.”
Their esprit de corps, their efforts, and their readiness to sacrifice—including the real risks of death–make me ponder the proper place of radical altruism in a sensible human life. I hope that I would have the strength to volunteer for a mission like that, and that I would be able to be brave and effective in the face of such grave challenge.
There’s nothing crazy, foolish, or strange about taking big risks to save thousands of your countrymen and countrywomen or to step in to take the place of a younger responder, such as the parent of young children. Who among us has the opportunity to do something of such significance to grace our lives? Who among us has the opportunity to work with colleagues and friends for whom we would be willing make such sacrifices?
I am very worried about the front-line responders struggling with this disaster. I deeply admire them. I do not pity them, or believe for one moment that they have made an incomprehensible choice.