What separates barbarism from civilization? About 96 hours without power, it turns out. The plight of a few New Yorkers left without food, fuel, or power — and increasingly without public services — has provided a cautionary tale into what happens when the infrastructure which supports 21st century megacities collapses. It shows what occurs when the design margin runs out. The signs in the disaster area abound. “Looters will be shot.” “Block proteced by Smith and Wesson.”
“We booby-trapped our door and keep a baseball bat beside our bed,” Danielle Harris, 34, told the New York Daily News.
The woman added that she has been hearing gunshots likely fired in the nearby housing project for three nights in a row.
Meanwhile, local surfer Keone Singlehurst said that he stockpiled knives, a machete and a bow and arrow.
“I would take a looter with a bow if a felt threatened. I would definitely use it,” he said. “It’s like the wild west. A borderline lawless situation.”
The New York Times describes what life has become in public housing. The residents dread the coming of the shadows with the same intensity as the Eloi feared sundown. A-woo.
It would be dark soon at the Coney Island Houses, the fourth night without power, elevators and water. Another night of trips up and down pitch-black staircases, lighted by shaky flashlights and candles. Another night of retreating from the dark.
On the second floor of Building 4, an administrative assistant named Santiago, 43, who was sharing her apartment with five relatives, ran through a mental checklist. Turn the oven on for heat. Finish errands, like fetching water for the toilet, before the light fades.
“We don’t dare throw out garbage at night,” she said. “We make sure everything’s done.” …
Perhaps more so than in any other place in the city, the loss of power for people living in public housing projects forced a return to a primal existence. Opened fire hydrants became community wells. Sleep-and-wake cycles were timed to sunsets and sunrises. People huddled for warmth around lighted gas stoves as if they were roaring fires. Darkness became menacing, a thing to be feared.
In H.G. Well’s story the Eloi marvel at the instinctive ability of the Time Traveler to defend himself against the Morlocks. What was ordinary for a man of the 19th century had become unthinkable to the child-like inhabitants of that dismal future. The ability to resist had been bred out of them. Perhaps in time it will be bred out of the hapless denizens of public housing, waiting as they are for “someone” to restore order. It now no longer occurs to them that this “someone” was once them.
But where the memory of the human birthright had not been wholly extirpated, the residents looked to themselves. Gone in an instant was the idea that “guns” are bad. Unmentioned was the once sacrosanct principle that nothing is settled by force. Few things transform a surfer — like the man above — into a caveman faster than need.
The underlying concept of the essay “The Three Conjectures,” which argues that the West will respond with whatever force is necessary to protect itself once it is attacked by weapons of mass destruction, springs from this single insight: need knows no law.
A liberal will bay for blood once radioactive glass fragments from his window are embedded in his face. People only want to buy the world a Coke when they feel safe. The idea of apologizing to radical Islamists for historical sins can only occur to people contemplating it over nachos and iced tea on a pleasant autumn afternoon. Deprive the same man of food, leave him confronted with the ruins of his home and the bodies of his family — and you may well marvel at the transformation.
Of course the inconveniences in New York are temporary. Give it a few weeks and things will be back to normal. Then we can be our old generous and humane selves again. But before we entirely forget a few unpleasant days of deprivation, let’s spare a moment to reflect on how fragile is our civilization. How fleeting are our scruples.
Humanity and civilization are a privilege we earn by having a design margin. An overmatch of power is the luxury whose possessor can spend on such things as mercy, truth, and love. Surfeit is not always evil. Like Sherlock once said, “our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.”
All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.
When it’s down to live or die, when its down to a world without flowers, when you come to a universe where there’s just one piece of moldy bread for two hungry and desperate men, then the old law returns: do unto others before they do unto you.
The United States has presided over the longest peace in modern history. It did not achieve this on the back of “moral superiority.” It attained this because it had sufficient strength and wealth to plant the flowers. We ought not to let people persuade us that weakness is good; that poverty is virtuous; that a dull sameness is all we must aspire to. We ought not to think that to disarm ourselves before evil is virtue. It is folly. We will all learn that lesson at one time or another in our lives. Only some will learn it too late.
Preserve the peace by keeping the ship in trim. And never, never willingly let it get away from you.
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