Press reports of the state of nature emerging in New Orleans seem to confirm the dark vision of Thomas Hobbes: Without the hand of government, life is nasty, brutish and short. But haven't we entered a social contract in this nation designed to civilize the passions?
New Orelans has always seemed like another world. Dark, brooding, sensual -- a place of swirling passions veering out of control. But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina we see what looks like the dark side of the Mardi Gras mindset. The images are chilling.
There are unconfirmed reports of child rape among the 20,000 souls packed into the Superdome awaiting rescue. Looters rifle through homes, snatching anything that hasn't floated away. Homeowners are shooting back. A new terror.
As I drove to work today, the emerging violence in New Orleans was the talk of the airwaves. "Shoot to kill," a caller growled. "Yeah," the radio host agreed. "The police should get tough."
Such talk is frightening. When attacked from the outside as we were on 9/11, we called for more government, more security. When attacked from within, we call for the same. Always and forever chaos the tyrant's siren song.
Of course, we can't blame Katrina on foreign foes. There's no secret weather center hidden in the backyard of some evil fiend to seek out and to destroy. This time we simply stare down the brute fact of nature's indifference to life and reckon with this latest proof that even a City on Hill is not immune from the blind fury of chance. So much for American exceptionalism, a national conceit hard to shake.
The chaos in New Orleans teaches no great truth. It merely reminds us of the venality laying beneath the surface of all the cheery assumptions our affluence permits us to take for granted. It turns out that when rubbed raw by need our civil society is not so civil after all.