We are witnessing appalling scenes from New Orleans, reminiscent of the dystopic vision of Mad Max blended with Waterworld. Heart wrenching scenes of people desperate for food, water, health care and transport. A breakdown in law and order. Police officers bravely defending the their stations under sustained attack. Gangs of youths roaming the city, looting and raping. Troops sent in with shoot-to-kill orders. Shanty towns developing in sporting facilites. Maybe some of this is sensationalism by the mainstream media; let us hope that this is not the reality faced by most people.
I have two immediate reactions.
First, just how close we all are, all the time, to a collapse in civilisation, and a Hobbesian state. On the surface, the institutions of society seem strong, natural and permanent. But this is a facade. Take away that superstructure, even if only for a few days, and apparently our humanity deserts us. We saw during the Rwanda genocide how crowds can be whipped into hysteria, and persuaded to commit atrocities that seem to us unthinkable. Within days of hardship in America, the richest society on earth, founded on noble principles, society appears if not to have fallen apart then to be fraying at the edges. Society must never be taken for granted, and we must never be complacent about what we need to do to nurture and sustain it.
Second, I wonder if this would have happened quite like this in Europe. Leave aside whether the rescue services would have done a better job. Has Europe developed stronger instincts of cooperation and mutual support? Has America developed a more individualistic, survival of the fittest society? Has the social and economic exclusion of poor blacks, who have been worst affected by the flooding of New Orleans, created a group of people who do not feel they owe anything to their community? In Europe, would the relative social cohesiveness have done more to keep social structures and community cooperation together? Let us hope we never find out. How much difference does it make having guns?
A tragedy has befallen New Orleans. May hope and society be soon restored.