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Memorial Service for the Victims of the Southeast Asian Tsunami
By Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Washington, DC, Sunday, Sunday, January 09, 2005

Thank you, Ambassador [Alfred] Moses … distinguished members of the diplomatic community … ladies and gentlemen.

I am honored to be part of this solemn occasion, and I bring the sympathy and sincere good wishes of President Bush, his entire Cabinet, the American government and the American people.

It has been widely noted that this was an indiscriminate tragedy—one that struck down young and old, rich and poor, individuals of every race, people from all over the globe and members of every religious group.

A Muslim cleric in one Indian city that was struck by the tsunami put it this way:  “This kind of tragedy [knows] no religion….”

At the end of this service the Cantor will recite the beautiful Hebrew prayer for the dead, El Maalei Rahamim.  Let me share with you the English words so that you will see the universal spirit of that prayer:

O God full of compassion, Eternal Spirit of the universe, grant perfect rest under the wings of Your Presence to our loved ones who have entered eternity.  Master of Mercy, let them find refuge for ever in the shadow of Your wings, and let their souls be bound up in the bond of eternal life.  The Eternal God is their inheritance.  May they rest in peace, and let us say:  Amen.

For those who have died, our Christian friends would offer this prayer which also speaks to people of all religions:  “Give them eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them forever, for you are rich in mercy.”

Reverend Suthadhara just gave me these beautiful lines from a Buddhist prayer:

Do your duty today,
For—who knows?—tomorrow death may come.
There is no covenant
With Death.

Since the overwhelming majority of the victims of this tragedy were Muslims, perhaps it is most appropriate to recite a Muslim prayer.  I have learned from the sad experience of attending several memorial services for Muslim victims of the terrorists in Iraq that on an occasion such as this it is appropriate to recite the Fatiha [recites in Arabic].

When I recite the English, you will hear that this too is a universal prayer that expresses the feelings of many religions:

In the name of God the most compassionate and most merciful, praise be to God, the cherisher and sustainer of the world, the most compassionate, the most merciful, master of the day of judgment, thee do we worship and thine aid do we seek.  Show us the straight way, the way of those on whom thou has bestowed thy grace, thou whose portion is not wrath and who go not astray.

We have all witnessed – most of us, from a comfortable distance – the most destructive natural calamity the modern world has known.   We have stood helplessly by in the past week as the total death toll rises hideously – past 10,000 and then 50,000 and 150,000.  The images of the ravaged areas bordering the Indian Ocean, and the sufferings of the survivors, will stay with us all our lives. 

The scale of this tragedy has given new and terrible meaning to that word survivor.  Countless numbers have been left to face life after the loss not just of one parent but often of both parents, not just of both parents but their entire extended family, and sometimes even their entire village and everyone they knew and grew up with.  And tens of thousands are faced with the additional grief that comes from never knowing with certainty the fate of their loved ones.

The only blessing in this tragedy is that we have also witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of concern, literally from the entire world:  the donations of money and goods, from governments and individuals, like a wave of generosity trying to erase that other wave of destruction.   And we have seen the tireless and often heroic efforts of all the individuals and organizations, local, national, and international, who have brought healing and sustenance to those scenes of utter devastation.  

During the past week, the world seems to have become a smaller and more connected place.

* * * * *

For diplomats, I imagine, the world has always been small and inter-connected.  I will always feel closely connected to the country where I was privileged to serve as Ambassador, in my one overseas posting.  That country was Indonesia—now facing the challenge of recovering from this natural disaster. 

One of the privileges of serving there was the opportunity to visit Aceh several times.  It is a hauntingly beautiful place – or at least it was.  More significantly, Indonesia is a country of many ethnic groups and religions and languages and the people of Aceh have a culture and history as distinctive as any in that very diverse country.

Their language is related not to the Malay languages of the immediate neighborhood but rather to the language of the Cham minority in Cambodia and southern Vietnam. 

For many centuries before the Dutch conquest, Aceh was an independent sultanate.  The Acehnese developed a rich culture, one of whose distinctive features are texts and oral recitals called hikayat, many of which are in verse form.  Their subject matter covers a range from the humorous to religious texts to epic recitals about Acehnese heroes.

There are many of the latter, for the Acehnese are a fiercely independent people.  When the Dutch attempted to colonize the Sultanate in 1875, they found themselves in a war that went on for twenty-five years and never fully ended.  One of the heroes of that war was a woman, Cut Nya' Dhien, who took over the leadership of the Acehnese resistance against the Dutch after the death of her husband.

This fiercely independent character is also reflected in the Acehnese belief in their Muslim religion, which leads other Indonesians to sometimes call them “fanatik,” borrowing the term from English.  However, I think they are better described as “fiercely” or “devoutly” Muslims.  I still remember sitting on the floor of a one-room Muslim schoolhouse, built on stilts with a thatched roof, in the middle of the Acehnese jungle and hear the kyai, or imam, of the school tell us:  “Other Indonesians may call us ‘fanatik,’ but we are not.”  With evident deep feeling he added, “Here, you see, we welcome you with open arms and with open hearts.”

With open hearts and, I would add, with great mutual respect – from a people who cling fiercely to their own identity but whose least wish is to force their identity onto others.

It is unbearably ironic that the beautiful region of Aceh, with its proud traditions and rich historical heritage, should now be known to the world, not for its culture and accomplishments, but for scenes of destruction and privation.  The same can be said, I am certain, for the regions of Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka so cruelly devastated by the tsunami.

The international community must now work with great dedication to help put in place the means of long-term rebuilding and reconstruction in all the affected areas.  In view of the almost overwhelming display we have seen of sympathy and concern, I feel confident that we will rise to this challenge. 

Even as we mourn these thousands of victims and try to comfort the bereaved, we can still feel gratitude that we belong to a global community of brave and generous men and women. 

Rabbi Yonah of Gerundi once said that “the way of the righteous” is to “… pray for the peace of the entire world and feel the suffering of others.”

Through their prayers and their deeds, Americans have shown solidarity with the people of South Asia.   It is gratifying to see how Americans young and old are finding ways to help. 

There is the story of a 9-year-old boy in California who asked his mother to send the money for his birthday party to children in Asia instead.  We’ve marveled at the American aid workers who’ve gone to the region to lend their expertise.  We’ve watched with pride as men and women of America’s armed forces deliver relief supplies and hope. 

As that Indian imam said:  “this kind of tragedy [knows] no religion….”

Fortunately, neither does a concern for our common humanity.  People of all faiths have responded to this great need.

They understand, as you do, that by working together there is much we can do to lessen the suffering of our fellow men.

I want to thank each one of you here today.  May the Lord bless this community and your generous efforts, may He bless the victims of this terrible tragedy, all their families and all the people of South Asia.  And may He bless America.