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Arguable: Life and death and earthquakes

Rescue workers in the remains of a building in Mexico City on September 25. Hopes of finding more survivors after the devastating earthquake have dwindled to virtually nothing, nearly a week after the seismic jolt shook the city, killing more than 300 people.
Rescue workers in the remains of a building in Mexico City on September 25. Hopes of finding more survivors after the devastating earthquake have dwindled to virtually nothing, nearly a week after the seismic jolt shook the city, killing more than 300 people.RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

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Earthquakes kill. But without them, we’d be dead.

Fearsome earthquakes have struck Mexico this month, killing hundreds of victims — among them 30 children in Mexico City, crushed to death when their Mexico City school was flattened.

The pain and loss inflicted by such disasters inevitably raise agonizing questions: Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why do terrible things happen to innocent people? How can a just and loving God be the author of such heart-rending calamities? From time immemorial, philosophers, artists, and moral teachers have struggled to make sense of scenes of misery like those coming out of Mexico in recent days.


Needless to say, our first reaction to so much despair and destruction should not be to philosophize but to help. Aid and volunteers have been pouring into Mexico since the first quake off the country’s southern Pacific coast — which registered a terrifying 8.1 on the Richter scale. The actress Salma Hayek, a Mexican native and survivor of a devastating 8.0 magnitude earthquake in 1985, launched an emergency fundraising campaign with a $100,000 donation to UNICEF, and posted a video on Instagram in imploring others to contribute as well. For anyone willing to help, there are numerous reputable charities that are responding to Mexico’s anguish with on-the-scene aid, food, and shelter.

Please give.

To the human beings they affect, earthquakes are harrowing and tragic. Yet, paradoxically and bewilderingly, they are also essential to human existence. Geologists and geochemists have found that without plate tectonics — the movement and collision of the titanic slabs that make up the earth’s crust, which shift and slide above the viscous mantle below, triggering earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes — our planet likely would not be habitable.


William J. Broad, a Pulitzer Price-winning science writer for The New York Times, explained the paradox in a 2005 article headlined “Deadly and Yet Necessary, Quakes Renew the Planet.” He was writing shortly after the terrible Indian Ocean tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, but the discussion is as relevant today.

“The global process behind great earthquakes is quite advantageous for life on earth — especially human life,” Broad noted. “It builds mountains, enriches soils, regulates the planet’s temperature, concentrates gold and other rare metals, and maintains the sea’s chemical balance.” The planet’s crustal upheavals cause staggering losses of life, and yet, in the words of Robert Detrick Jr., a geophysicist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, “there’s no question that plate tectonics rejuvenates the planet.”

Earthquakes and volcanoes help to regulate the planet’s atmosphere. Without them, Broad was told by geochemist William Schlesinger, the former dean of Duke’s school of Environment and Earth Sciences, essential carbon dioxide would dissipate and “the planet would turn into a frozen ball.”

Near the end of his riveting 2003 bestseller, Krakatoa — a chronicle of one of the most violent volcanoes in history — Simon Winchester makes a similar point. To the victims of an annihilating eruption or a shattering earthquake, such cataclysms “must seem a most monstrous injustice.” Yet out of that injustice emerge life-sustaining gifts:


The water, carbon dioxide, carbon, and sulfur that are so central to the making and maintenance of organic life are all being constantly recycled by the world’s volcanoes . . . [They bring] from the secret storehouses of the inner earth the elements that allow the outer earth, the biosphere and the lithosphere, to be so vibrantly alive.

Without this incessant churning of the earth’s crust, human beings and other land creatures would have died off long ago. Instead, our planet’s land masses are rich cradles of biodiversity, capable of supporting 7 billion human lives and a vast array of other living creatures. That is no comfort to those now homeless, injured, and ruined in Mexico, who urgently need our assistance. Yet for those made uneasy by the outwardly cruel indifference of the natural world, it offers a measure of reassurance — a reminder that from today’s lethal catastrophe flow the blessings of life tomorrow.

Hillary Clinton signs copies of her book “What Happened” at a book store in New York on Sept. 12.
Hillary Clinton signs copies of her book “What Happened” at a book store in New York on Sept. 12.AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Move on, Hillary

I don’t blame Hillary Clinton for feeling bruised and bitter about losing the 2016 presidential election. She was sure she would win; she attracted 3 million more votes than Donald Trump; but she didn’t become president. Of course that hurts. Losing any close election stings. Losing a bid for the White House to someone as boorish and mendacious as Trump has to be excruciating.

But I can’t see how Clinton is doing herself any good by continuing to question the legitimacy of Trump’s victory. As many readers have noted, Clinton’s new book, What Happened, blames her loss last November on a remarkably long list of culprits: the Russians, WikiLeaks, Bernie Sanders, the media, James Comey, sexism, racism, even the Green Party. Yet when it comes to her own contributions to the debacle — her reputation for dishonesty and greed, her unlikeable persona, her sense of entitlement — she is much more reticent.


You don’t have to be a conservative or a Republican to recognize that the main cause of Clinton’s loss was Clinton. “When you lose to somebody who has 40% popularity, you don’t blame other things,” Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, told the Washington Post in July. In an essay published on Friday in The American Prospect, Stanley Greenberg — a top Democratic pollster and strategist — analyzed how Clinton’s “malpractice and arrogance contributed mightily to the election of Donald Trump.”

Unsuccessful presidential candidates don’t normally write books about their path to defeat. Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Bob Dole — the also-rans in the last five presidential elections — didn’t feel the need to do so. But for Clinton, a dignified silence apparently wasn’t an option. “I had to get this off my chest!” she exclaims in What Happened .

Even after getting it off her chest, however, Clinton can’t seem to move on.

In an interview last week with NPR’s Terry Gross, Clinton ran through her usual repertoire — denouncing Trump, blasting Comey, charging voters with misogyny, and demonizing the “right-wing ecosystem.” Then, something new: She suggested that she was prepared to launch some kind of legal battle to contest the outcome of the election.


NPR: Would you completely rule out questioning the legitimacy of this election if we learn that the Russian interference in the election is even deeper than we know now?

Clinton: No. I would not. I would say —

NPR: You’re not going to rule it out.

Clinton: No, I wouldn’t rule it out.

NPR: So what are the means? Like, this is totally unprecedented in every way —

Clinton: It is.

The former First Lady went on to acknowledge that there is no “mechanism” for throwing out the results of a presidential election. But she pointedly observed that “the Kenya election was just overturned” by that country’s supreme court — a development, she said, “which I’m only beginning to delve into.”

No doubt there are interesting lessons to be gleaned from Kenya’s electoral turmoil, but Clinton is delusional if she really imagines that the 2016 election results are still, somehow, subject to challenge. Wherever the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian interference in the presidential campaign may lead — and I have little doubt that the Kremlin deliberately tried to swing American public opinion in Trump’s direction — there has been no hint from any quarter that actual votes were corruptly bought or altered. Nearly 137 million votes were cast for president last year, and the electorate that cast them was motivated by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of factors. Russian leaks and disinformation may have been among those factors. But that doesn’t change the legitimacy of what happened on Election Day.

A candidate who questions the validity of a presidential election’s outcome is guilty of “denigrating” and “talking down our democracy.” Those aren’t my words, they’re Clinton’s: That is what she said in her final debate with Trump last October, when he insisted the campaign was “rigged” and wouldn’t commit to honoring the results of the election even if he lost.

Clinton’s response that night was swift and unsparing. “That’s horrifying,” she said. And then she lit into her opponent:

That is not the way our democracy works. We’ve been around for 240 years. We’ve had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that is what must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election. . . . [L]et’s be clear about what he is saying and what that means. He is denigrating — he’s talking down our democracy. And I, for one, am appalled that somebody who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that kind of position.

Just so.

When she thought she was going to win, Clinton had nothing but contempt for anyone unwilling to accept the legitimacy of the voters’ choice. Her refusal to do so when the voters chose someone else is just as contemptible. So, of course, is Trump’s repeated claim that he would have won the popular vote as well, if not for the “millions of people who voted illegally.”

For both Trump and Clinton, the 2016 election resulted in a victory and loss: He won the White House but fell far short in the popular vote; she lost the race but drew more votes overall. The inability of either one to gracefully accept the loss the American people handed them is just another reminder of the lousy choice voters were presented with on Election Day. Two seedy and ignoble scoundrels were nominated for the highest office in the land. It was an extraordinary honor that neither deserved, as both continue to prove.

Land of the ignorant

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1816. America’s third president was passionate about education, not only from a personal love of learning, but also from a conviction that civic ignorance imperils democratic liberties.

Two centuries later, such ignorance is distressingly easy to find.

In its latest national survey, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania confirms once again that most Americans have only the feeblest understanding of our system of government and of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Annenberg Public Policy Center

The survey found, for example, that only 26% of respondents could name the three basic branches of the government (executive, judicial, and legislative). An astonishing 33% couldn’t even name one. This in a country where three-fourths of the public can identify all Three Stooges.

Respondents in the Annenberg survey were asked: “Can you name any of the specific rights that are guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution?” Less than half (48%) knew that freedom of speech is a First Amendment right, and far fewer could name any of the other rights: 15% mentioned freedom of religion; 14%, freedom of the press; 10%, the right of assembly. Only 3% cited the right to petition the government.

And a shocking 37% — nearly 4 in 10 — could not identify a single freedom protected by the First Amendment.

Are we really OK with this?

As every naturalized immigrant knows, newcomers cannot become US citizens without first demonstrating a grasp of basic civics. Foreigners applying for citizenship are tested on their knowledge of government and the Constitution. Some of the questions: How many amendments does the Constitution have? Who makes federal laws? Why do some states have more Representatives than others? What is the capital of your state? Who is the commander in chief of the military?

The questions are fairly simple, and more than 95% of immigrants applying for citizenship pass. Yet to judge from the Annenberg Center data, at least one third of native-born Americans would flunk.

Democratic norms are not self-perpetuating. If they aren’t taught, they will not endure. “The first duty imposed on those who now direct society,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his magisterial study of American life and culture, “is to educate democracy.” If that’s no longer a priority in this country, we might as well kiss our liberties goodbye.


In my column last Wednesday, I wrote about the independence referendum being held today in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Americans should cheer the Kurds bid for sovereignty, I argued — among other reasons because they are ardently pro-American, unabashed allies in a region where the US has few true friends. “A free and democratic Kurdistan will be a blessing to its people, a model for the Middle East, and a rock-solid ally of America,” I concluded.

Wild Wild Web

Osmium? Tantalum? Hafnium? Here’s a periodic table that shows not only all the elements, but what they are used for.

As a little girl, Queen Elizabeth played with some seriously creepy dolls.

Lurch (and the rest of the Addams Family) gets down to the Ramones.

How many human beings would a T-Rex need to consume to meet its daily caloric requirement?

Sammy Davis Jr. dancing — as a 6-year-old.

You can’t actually dig a hole through the Earth — there’s a molten core in the middle. But if you could, where would you end up? Check the Antipodes Map.

The last line

“Frenham, his face still hidden, did not stir.” — Edith Wharton, The Eyes (1910)

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.