The compact of civil society
August 31st, 2005

Hour by torturous hour, the news grows ever grimmer. An event unlike any other in modern industrialized history is taking place right before our eyes. The stories of individual heroism and mob cowardice are obscuring the real story – a story that story simply cannot be told because the modern human mind is incapable of processing the images, the words, and the stories they’re telling and make any kind of a coherent narrative or sense out of it.

It is quite simply beyond belief, beyond understanding, and beyond anything in our experience. No modern industrialized city has ever experienced anything like New Orleans is going through in the aftermath of Katrina.

Don’t talk to me about London, Berlin, or Tokyo and the trials that those cities endured during World War II. There is nothing remotely to compare with what’s happening to New Orleans. Those cities were destroyed relatively slowly over a period of years (Berlin and London) or months (Tokyo). But the Noahic flood that now engulfs more than 80% the Crescent City has subsumed not just buildings and people, it has washed away the thin veneer of civilization and brought to the surface behaviors and emotions more suited to the African savannas where modern Homo Sapiens first began to dominate the planet rather than the city streets where until just a few days ago, people were laughing, walking, singing, playing music – living.

What, after all, is civilization? At its core, human civilization represents an agreement between people not to kill each other. The only way millions of strangers can live together in relative peace in big cities is by recognizing the unspoken agreement that when walking down the street and approaching someone you don’t know, one refrains from the natural human impulse of fighting for your life. Usually, both parties are in agreement on this singular principal and the hundreds of encounters with strangers we have every day pass unnoticed amid the hustle and bustle of city life.

This is the compact of civilization. I won’t kill you if you won’t kill me. It’s maintained by something even more tenuous: faith. Faith in the strictures an organized society places on people who break the compact as well as faith in the people and institutions who are charged with the task of enforcing those strictures. This shared community of faith works pretty well for all except the social misfits and anti-social galoots who prey upon the weak like predators in a jungle. For the rest of us, we form little islands of support in this larger community – neighbors, our church, our sports teams – which allows us the luxury of feeling less vulnerable to the predators, less alone amidst the millions of strangers.

But something has happened in New Orleans that is unprecedented. We’ve seen it happen on a smaller scale during other natural disasters. The looting, the anger, the despair was evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in Florida. However, while the area damaged by Andrew may have been just as large as the swath of total destruction left by Katrina, Andrew never quite destroyed the spirit of community and shared faith which allowed Floridians to maintain a patina of civilization that kept them from lunging at each other’s throats and descending to the level of animals whose only thought was of obeying the primal instinct present in all of us for self preservation.

Make no mistake. Unless something truly dramatic happens in the next 48 hours, the situation in New Orleans will degenerate into something heretofore seen only in refugee camps and places like Somalia. People will start forming themselves into mobs for protection. And those mobs will start fighting both the authorities and each other for scarce resources as people get hungrier and thirstier by the hour. We already have seen property owners setting up their own security patrols in sections of downtown. This is from a New Orleans blogger:

Since it’s war out there, I figure it’s time to go back to my military ways.

Camp Crystal is locked down for the night. Team SOTI (that’s the crew up here) has broken up into 3 squads. Squad 1 is on diesel detail. Squad 2 is on patrol. Squad 3 is on service and support.
The Final Protective Line is Poydras Avenue. All avenues of approach are secure. Stand to is at 0600.

The cops were out in force on Poydras until just a few moments ago. Not sure what they were upto.

The blogger has a fairly clear picture as to what’s happening on the ground:

I guess what I’m saying is there’s no need to focus on us here, because we’re gonna make do. We need to worry about preventing the city from consuming itself, because the looting is getting nuts, the waters are rising in many heretofor unflooded sections, and there’s no timeline available for power, food, water, medicine and the like for the masses.

If you have any survival tips, feel free to toss in your input. I’ve got a lot of survival training, but we’ve never trained for the total collapse of civilization (or I should say, my only training in that regard was from a military perspective).

The “total collapse of civilization” is right around the corner and there’s nothing really to stop it. The authorities' first priority is to save the living. Since so many are stranded, trapped, injured, or lost – numbers that may be in the tens of thousands – this is a process that will take days. In the meantime, the flood waters keep rising, the dead go unattended, the looting is getting out of control, people in shelters are getting close to open revolt, and the chances for complete and utter chaos that would cost the lives of thousands of people grows hourly.

Something or someone must intervene to restore the one commodity that could head the chaos off at the pass and put the evil genie of anarchy back in the bottle. That one commodity is hope. Unless people have hope that things are eventually going to get better and get better quickly, they will succumb to the siren song of mobocracy and tear New Orleans to shreds. As it stands now, we’re a hairsbreadth from open warfare in the streets. And if no one can step forward – the Mayor, the Governor, or even President Bush – and give the residents of New Orleans confidence in the future, people will look to their present circumstances and act accordingly.

That way lies madness.

Rick Moran is the proprietor of the blog Rightwing Nuthouse

Rick Moran