The thin veneer of civilization

Share via
TIMOTHY GARTON ASH is a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a Hoover Institution senior fellow.

THE BIG LESSON of Katrina is not about the incompetence of the Bush administration, the scandalous neglect of poor black people in the United States or our unpreparedness for major natural disasters, though all of those apply. Katrina’s big lesson is that the crust of civilization on which we tread is always wafer thin. One tremor and you’ve fallen through, scratching and gouging for your life like a wild dog.

You think the looting, rape and armed terror that emerged within hours in New Orleans couldn’t happen elsewhere? Think again. It happened here in Europe only 60 years ago. Read the memoirs of Holocaust and Gulag survivors, Norman Lewis’ account of Naples in 1944 or the recently republished anonymous diary of a German woman in Berlin in 1945. It happened in Bosnia just 10 years ago. And that wasn’t even the force majeure of a natural disaster. Those were man-made hurricanes.

The basic point is the same: Remove the elementary staples of organized, civilized life -- food, shelter, drinkable water, minimal personal security -- and we go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all. Some people, some of the time, behave with heroic solidarity; most people, most of the time, engage in a ruthless fight for individual and genetic survival. A few become temporary angels; most revert to being apes.

The word “civilization,” in one of its earliest senses, referred to the process of human animals being civilized -- by which we mean, I suppose, achieving a mutual recognition of human dignity, or at least accepting in principle the desirability of such a recognition. Reading Jack London the other day, I came across an unusual word: decivilization. The opposite process, that is -- the one by which people cease to be civilized and become barbaric. Katrina tells us about the ever-present possibility of decivilization.


There are intimations of this even in normal, everyday life. Road rage is a good example. Or think what it’s like waiting for a late-night flight that is delayed or canceled. At first, those carefully guarded cocoons of personal space we carry around with us in airport waiting areas break down into flickerings of solidarity. The glance of mutual sympathy over the newspaper or laptop screen. A few words of shared frustration or irony. Often this grows into a stronger manifestation of group solidarity, perhaps directed against the hapless check-in staff. (To find a common enemy is the only sure way to human solidarity.) But then a rumor creeps out that there are a few seats left on another flight at Gate 37. Instant collapse of solidarity. Angels become apes. The sick, infirm, elderly, women and children are left behind in the stampede. Dark-suited men, with advanced degrees and impeccable table manners, elbow aside the competition, get their boarding passes and then retreat into a corner, avoiding other people’s gaze -- the gorilla who got the banana. All this just to avoid a night at the Holiday Inn in Des Moines.

Obviously, the decivilization in New Orleans was 1,000 times worse. I can’t avoid the feeling that there will be more of this, much more of it, as we go deeper into the 21st century. There are just too many big problems looming that could push humanity back. The most obvious threat is more natural disasters as a result of climate change. If this cataclysm is interpreted by politicians as -- to use the hackneyed phrase that they will themselves undoubtedly use -- a “wake-up call” to alert Americans to the consequences of the United States continuing to pump out carbon dioxide as if there were no tomorrow, then the Katrina hurricane cloud will have a silver lining. But it may already be too late. We may be launched on an unstoppable downward spiral. If so, if large parts of the world were tormented by unpredictable storms, flooding and temperature changes, then what happened in New Orleans would seem like a tea party.

In a sense, these too would be man-made hurricanes. But there are also the more direct threats of humans toward other humans. Thus far, terrorist attacks have provoked outrage, fear, some restrictions of civil liberties and the abuses of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons, but they have not resulted in mass hysteria or scapegoating. But suppose this is just a beginning. Suppose there’s a dirty bomb or even a small nuclear weapon exploded by a terrorist group in a major city. What then?

Almost having the force of a flood is the pressure of mass migration from the poor and overpopulated South of the planet to the rich North. (Not accidentally, anti-immigration populists routinely use the flood metaphor.) If natural or political disaster were to put still more millions on the move, our immigration controls might one day prove to be like the levees of New Orleans. Even with current levels of immigration, the resulting encounters -- especially those between Muslim immigrants and European residents -- are proving to be explosive. How civilized will we remain? And then there is the challenge of accommodating the emerging great powers, especially India and China, into the international system. Especially in the case of China, where communist leaders use diversionary nationalism to stay in power, there is a danger of war. Nothing decivilizes more quickly and surely than war.

So never mind Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” That, as the old Russian saying goes, was long ago and not true anyway. What’s under threat here is simply civilization, the thin crust we lay across the seething magma of nature, including human nature. New Orleans opened a small hole through which we glimpsed what always lies below. The Big Easy shows us the Big Difficult, which is to preserve that crust.