The Parchment-Thin Veil of Civility

It had all the makings of a summer cinematic blockbuster -- where the seemingly arbitrary whim of nature casts her capricious lot on the urban Northeast and afflicts these high-density communities with untold malicious vehemence.  Indeed, like some Olympian wrath brought on by mankind's gross impiety, Hurricane Sandy has left her indelible and frightening footprint on millions of lives.  But having scoured the Jersey Shore and decimated much of the power, transportation, and communication infrastructure of America's Greatest City, we as moral beings are once again granted a ringside seat to an equally stripped subterranean view of the human condition -- an odyssey into the ethical default state of man when reduced to primal powerlessness and carnal frailty.  How axiomatic, then, that once the veneer of technology is exposed, our civility closely follows.  What began, then, as The Day After soon crystallized into William Golding's Lord of The Flies.

Indeed, pressure and scarcity along the Eastern Seaboard have shown the loathsome reality of what humans can descend to.  Although there are some flickers of kindness and altruism, widespread looting and violence have been reported, and lodging, food, and fuel, rightly or wrongly, are being used as levers for extortionate gain.  As a case in point, on Craigslist, it is reported that gasoline is being sold for as much as fifteen dollars a gallon.

In the borough of Queens, fear has become a constant companion once the night and temperatures fall and people are left with no power and heating.  Thugs dressing in the uniforms of City Utility workers, and identifying themselves as such, are knocking on doors at midnight in places where few legitimate workers have been seen even through the daylight hours.  To wit, huddled inside their darkened apartments, the cold and hungry have barricaded their doors against home invasion attempts and have armed themselves with guns, baseball bats, or even archery bows.  With streetlights and traffic signals offline, intersections are mass chaos, and one takes his life in his own hands by driving in a vehicle where every man has become a Road Warrior, a veritable law unto himself.  A general feeling exists that government has dropped the ball, as if government of itself had the means to counter the rivers of water that dispose and make a mockery of paltry man and his tawdry planning.

But for some reason, it is not so much the brutalities of nature that assault our sensibilities, but the man-made terrors and indignities arising from callous disregard and malice.  It is the New Jersey union workers who refuse the aid of non-union first responders in meeting the public needs -- which flaunts the stench of callous group interest.  It is those who take advantage of a bad situation and thereby make it far worse.  It is those hands that rob and loot the corner market or the fiends who use the cover of calamity to settle old scores or to enrich themselves.

Please understand: I am shining a beacon on this nastiness not in order to cast aspersions on New Yorkers or the residents of New Jersey, but rather to amplify the truth that beneath our parchment-thin wallpaper of moral obligation, mankind, whether residing in Calcutta or the Hamptons, is a seething cauldron of self.  Any major urban center in America, faced with an overwhelmingly catastrophic earthquake, a flood, or even the detonation of a dirty bomb, will bring out self-interest, fear, and despair in the best of us -- and, for the worst of us, transform our ethical countenances into those of cruel and clever beasts.  Moreover, an apocalyptic war of "all against all" does not necessarily need to occur in order to bring this reptile out of its psychic lair, as any shopper at a department store on Black Friday can readily attest to.  Try as I might, I cannot deny that there is a savage living under my skin.

In an age where government does everything it should not and fails in doing what it ought, we must keep in mind that the glib courtesies of civil society are only a mask for a measured depravity entrenched deep within us all -- and we should develop at least a modicum of self-sufficiency should our time come.  I would like to think that in a situation in which the stark horrors of survival were made keenly manifest, I would rise above the masses and do the selfless thing...but a loaded and cocked Smith and Wesson beside my bed is a testament to the fact that when push comes to shove, I am more than capable of doing what I "need" to do and perhaps ill-disposed to do what I ought to do.

How quickly our beautiful and vibrant cities, a tribute to our collective but synthetic material and social architecture, become as jungles, where the hunter and hunted enjoin that timeless Darwinian dance for survival and dominance.  How swiftly man assumes the posture of children in war paint, shedding his civility as a useless garment while rallying to the cadence of that primordial rhythm induced by pigs' heads under torchlight.