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When disaster strikes, remember: this is not your drama

From 9/11 to the Japanese tsunami, it seems to be modern nature to want to find tenuous personal lin

How was it for you? No, not the Budget. I mean the earthquake, the tsunami and the "meltdown" in Japan. How about the Christchurch earthquake in February? Haiti? The 11 September 2001 attacks? The Concorde crash in 2000? As someone said to me after Christchurch, "I've been really upset. I was there only three months ago!"

Californians braced themselves for a nuclear plume, European governments worried about their own nuclear power stations (why?), news reporters scoured Japan for British teachers to interview, the boss of Ocado gave interviews about his extended Japanese family and Radio 4's Jim Naughtie quaked in a Tokyo hotel room: the message was the same - no event is so distant today that you cannot be a part of its drama. A school notice arrives: "We have all been devastated by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan . . ." Have we, really?

On the day of the London bombings in July 2005, I received a text message from someone outside London, whom I did not know well, asking if I was OK - she had been "so worried" about me. "Why?" I wondered in irritation. Seven million people in London, four bombs - what are the chances? Then I realised it was all about her. She wanted a link to the action.

Package horror days

When disaster strikes, it seems natural to some people to seek a personal connection. After the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, recollections of holidays in south Asia became common. After 11 September 2001, it was all about "having a friend who knew someone who was in the World Trade Center" - or, as one of my colleagues at the time put it: "I nearly went to New York this week. Just think."

Indeed. Just think. Just think about how irrelevant that is. This is not your drama. When the Herald of Free Enterprise sank in March 1987, and I was on a completely different ferry on a completely different route but on the very same sea at the very same time, a friend noted: "But just imagine if you had had a ticket for the other crossing instead . . . ?" Yup. Just imagine. I'd have missed the boat, for starters, as it was in the wrong place. But still, just imagine.

The media help us to place ourselves at the heart of the action. There can be few images as compelling as that tide of water, rolling towards the poor sods in the cars on the Japanese highway. Yet there is nothing authentic about the "horror" that we feel. It is packaged horror - we are quite safe - which is why some enjoy it. The images are heavily controlled. The more culturally distant the country, the more likely the TV stations are to show pictures of the dead. We don't like emotion to be too proximate, after all. It's a falsified sense of connection with tragedy; not so different from a television drama.

This response to distant disasters is evident, too, in the growing worldwide fascination with places of old tragedy or horror. Known as "dark tourism", this encompasses trips to the killing fields of Cambodia, Dealey Plaza, Auschwitz-Birkenau and the site of the World Trade Center. Wherever there has been a horrific event, there will be people taking pictures of themselves. Before the 11 September 2001 attacks, about 1.8 million visited the World Trade Center's observation deck each year. Now, roughly three million visit Ground Zero. In 2002, residents of Soham appealed for an end to "grief tourism" - visitors were coming from all around Britain to gawp at the small Cambridgeshire town where Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were abducted and murdered.

The darker side of tourism appears to be having a bit of a boom. That said, as tourism in general is booming, it's hard to draw firm conclusions from the numbers. But from the ancient Greeks visiting the tombs of the pharaohs to tours of the morgues in 19th-century Paris, people have long had a natural curiosity about death: it reminds us how small we are. And "dark" tourism can teach us about history. What seems different is the need to place oneself in the drama, whether it's as close as London or as far away as Indonesia.

“Be a part of the splendour and surprises at one of the most famous dinner parties in history," urges the dinner event website for Titanic: the Experience. One visitor, Jennifer Harvey, notes: "Truly an event not to miss . . . I felt like I was really on board Titanic!" Yes, honey, except you didn't die with 1,500 others in freezing water in the dark at the end of it.

The spectacle of murder

At the other end of the dark tourism spectrum is something that strikes me as rather sad. For decades, Auschwitz has trodden delicately the uneasy line between tourist spectacle and site of mass murder. The local town, Oswiecim, did not even mention Auschwitz by name in its tourist brochure or give directions to the camp. And the Auschwitz "experience" was understated - roomfuls of tangled spectacles, or hair, or shoes; unadorned lines of huts with their bare wooden bunks; a few photos of the victims. It didn't need dramatising.

Not any longer, apparently. The numbers visiting the Auschwitz museum each year have increased from half a million a decade ago to about 1.4 million. In order to manage them, but also in order to "engage" a new generation, the museum is to introduce an exhibition taking visitors step by step through what camp inmates experienced. "We may pose the question," the museum director told the New York Times: "should a mother give a child to the grandmother and go to selection alone, or take the child with her?" Can we no longer empa­thise with other human beings unless we place ourselves at the centre of their drama?

It will be cold comfort to the Japanese that, having had their individual tragedies turned into a worldwide marathon of panic over the past few weeks, the people of Sendai will enjoy a tourism boom in years to come.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?