"When we are empathetic with somebody, it makes our dissimilarities similar," Strayer concluded.
Once people grasp the scope of this tragedy, it can take an emotional toll, says Butterworth, particularly because, unlike the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, these events were triggered by natural disasters.
"Many people got behind the emotional part of the 9/11 tragedy by getting angry," he said. "[President] Bush got up there at Ground Zero with a megaphone and said we will get them. What do we do when something like this happens -- shake our fist at God?"
One productive thing to do, says Suzanne Brooks, director of the Center for International Disaster Information, based in Washington, D.C., is to give.
"The best way people can help is to make a cash donation to a reliable organization that has people on the ground," she said. "Some may be tempted to send used clothing and bottled water and other supplies, but that is not the best way to help. Relief agencies can get exactly what's needed with cash and get on the ground fast."
As relief agencies report, Americans are doing just that. Butterworth says the donations are a logical -- and heartening -- response.
"It's not like it happened downtown where we can all show up and do something," Butterworth said. "Other than giving, there's not much more we can do. But giving makes you feel a little less helpless."