I can remember, only four years ago, how wonderfully secure it was possible to feel as an American. We seemed to be loved and feared by foreigners in roughly desirable proportions. At home, we were a bean supper kind of populace; a covered-dish-delivering people who smiled at our neighbors. We were, it is true, no longer a nation that bowled together, and it’s not like children in most towns and cities could safely play on the street after school any more, and there were sharks in the ocean and Congressional interns going missing, but still —
Sitting on the sofa, blinking and sniffling, I realize that what I have been feeling, beneath the jolly toy-gathering, cheque-writing do-goodery, and the Dr. John-playing, and the tender preparations for a new baby, is cold fear.
September 11th ripped away any shreds of childlike belief that our government —
our Government — made us safe from foreign baddies. Worse, for me, is what this
last week has shown: That Americans really are not different from other peoples;
that we are not protected from the Hobbesian beast within; that in the worst
circumstances, we would, many of us, be spoon-stealers.
Any manifestation of barbarism is serious. Nor will "desperation" suffice as an answer or an excuse: those are not acts of survival or defense or anything like. Mrs. Gurdon's "barbarism" is far more appropriate: those are deliberate acts of aggressors against civilization--cruel, vicious, destructive. Harsh words are for harsh acts. And yet--civil order did not fail everywhere, Biloxi being a notable example, and the nasty and brutish have not won, not just yet.
Of course, as with September 11th, Hurricane Katrina has produced countless acts of goodness and generosity, but I have been scarcely able to hear them. For me they have been crowded out by the horrible stories of child rape in the Superdome, of savage murders, slit throats, shots fired at helicopters, of looters shooting rescuers out of their boats. In wartime accounts, one reads of parents hiding their daughters, but surely not here — yet if barbarism can erupt in one American city, can it erupt in others?