I think many of us are simply overwhelmed by the scale of the human tragedy in Haiti, stunned by the scores of thousands of instant deaths and the tens of thousands dying slowly of injuries and thirst and, if we can be honest here, the years of neglect that predate the earthquake. It is very easy to flinch away from the enormity of this evil. As always happens in such catastrophes, though, there is a smaller, isolated disaster within the larger one that helps bring the human loss into focus: the heavy toll the quake took on the 3,000 United Nations workers who were there, trying to make Haiti a better place. As I write this, there are sixty-one confirmed UN deaths and some 180 missing, the largest single loss of life in the international organization’s sixty-year history.
Among the missing is a young German diplomat named Jan Hausotter, buried, we believe, in the rubble of the UN building in Port-au-Prince. I met Jan through his fiancée, Caroline Demarque, a young Belgian woman who also works for the UN in Haiti. A little more than two years ago, Caroline was studying in the graduate school for international relations at Seton Hall University, just a few blocks from my home in South Orange, New Jersey. We rented our third floor to Caroline and Jan, and quickly became friends. Within a few months, Jan left his job at the UN Security Council to work in the Haiti mission as a political affairs officer, and after Caroline graduated in the summer of 2008 she joined him there.
Even though they had both launched their diplomatic careers, Jan and Caroline wanted to keep a room in our house, just in case “we ever have to evacuate.” We more than kept in touch–on one of their rare shared visits to South Orange, Jan proposed to Caroline upstairs, then came down to announce she had accepted to a boozy party of journalists and artists. Happy toasts all ’round.
I am at least twenty years older than Jan, but our common ground, believe it or not, was a shared affection for westerns. I told him my 11-year-old son had no interest in the genre, that for him everything is Hellboy and anime; while I grew up thinking about confronting the nineteenth century, our kid is growing up with little interest in the past and barely enough attention to spare from video games to know the West is out there. Jan’s jaw dropped. “But westerns are how I see America!” he said.
High Noon was Jan’s kind of movie. What he liked, he said, was the implication that moral action was, in the end, simple. You might ride into a town that was dominated by a sinister gang, or corrupted by callow folk who would not stand up for justice. What you did then was shoot a couple of stubbly guys in worn chaps and ride out, leaving it a better place. Individual moral action was not only possible, it was essential. A mutual friend in South Orange, Allen Barra, author of Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends, gave Jan an ivory-handled, nickel-plated six gun like the one Doc Holliday carries in Tombstone. Allen knew Jan’s questing idealism well enough to quote Doc’s line when he took on a gunfight Wyatt Earp could not win himself: “I’ll be your huckleberry.”