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The Line Between the Civilized and the Savage

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My husband and I talked at length the other night about attempts that were made to contact un-contacted tribes like those headlined last year. The tribesmen were touted as savages by a lot of people, presumably because it was “us” using our methods of civilization to spy on “them,” who had none.

We discussed what defines and differentiates the civilized from the savage.

My husband is a recently retired Marine who spent a year in Okinawa and Korea. He spent five winters in a tent in the highest elevations of Norway and deployed to the Mediterranean where his ship was diverted to the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Croatia. He crossed the border at Kuwait into Iraq in 2003 and spent time off the coast of Liberia on his way home. While stationed with Marine Forces Europe, he spent a great deal of time in Africa. He is no stranger to adversity and has witnessed much poverty.

His military resume has given him a clear perspective on the world’s have-nots than could be had by any number of Americans whose sole understanding of the ROW (rest of the world) is limited to pictures in the paper. Any bit of travel abroad is often limited to those areas where one is not likely to see children playing in a puddle alongside a dead, bloated sheep.

We discussed the poor in America, many of whom are supplemented by faith-based programs. Even so, many poor people are still hungry and homeless. Would it make a difference if there were no religion? I suggested there would be less war and perhaps more compassion around the world if we were without this condition.

He disagreed, positing that religion is the only thing keeping most people in check. Without a higher power towing their moral line, he asserted, many would be left to their own devices. When their mettle is tested, one of those devices is not a moral center. Such is what some religious do when knocked down the rungs of Jacob’s ladder.

Many Americans have lost their homes to foreclosure because of loans they didn’t understand. While housed, all was well, and most behaved themselves. When homeless, many resorted to crimes like thievery and murder – a savage act by anyone’s definition. As the economy claimed ever more well-to-do, so did ever more savagery come to light.

Post-Katrina looting in New Orleans deftly marked the fine line between civilized and uncivilized, but because the main focus was on the looters’ skin color, the humanness of the reaction to the devastation was lost. The majority of the looters were black because the majority of those in need (without the resources to evacuate) were black. Had the poorest been white, we would’ve seen whites doing the same thing.

One specific incident of looting saw a black man wading through chest-high water, holding up a loaf of bread he’d pulled from a store just moments before. A white law enforcement officer aimed a gun at the man in the water and ordered him to drop it. The man did drop the bread into the water, presumably because the need to live (or go uninjured) outweighed the need to eat. My husband pointed out that the bread would’ve rotted on the shelf of the store had it not been taken, so what was gained by ordering the man to drop it?

The officer didn’t save the bread, nor did he restore law and order. Almost every perishable in Katrina’s path did perish – to include law and order. The officer acted desperately to maintain what was already gone. Was he more or less civilized or savage than the man who stole the bread?

The man who stole the bread was no more savage than the man who bought a loaf the week prior. Both were fulfilling a basic human need even as only one of them had money. With no more authority than his gun (New Orleans was lawless from the time Katrina made landfall until its jail was dried, lighted, and manned), the officer who threatened to shoot another person over a loaf of bread was every bit as savage as any man who has ever threatened to shoot someone over something so minor. It wasn’t minor to the officer, though – and this further illustrates our desperate need to restore normalcy during crisis.

There but for the grace of God, we say – but we more often actually believe stuff happens to other people. It makes it that much more devastating when grace skips us. To this end, we also say, “If that happened to me, I would…” but studies have shown we would not. We will oftentimes operate on instinct and any delusion brought on by the shock of loss instead.

Take that loss, and how you cope with it, and make it a way of life. That’s the only difference, my husband asserts, between the poor in America and the poor in Africa. It is also the only difference between “lazy” Americans and those in Iraq and Afghanistan who, because they have endured chronic loss with little or no support for decades, have succumbed to learned helplessness.

The question of why oppressed populations are not more ready to act free when freed can be answered with the guy in New Orleans who stole the bread. The storm had passed and help was standing right there in front of him in the form of a law officer. The officer wasn’t there to help the man with what he needed, though. The officer was there to meet his own need. Such is what some humans do when knocked down the rungs of Maslow’s ladder. What we’ll do for ourselves and for or to each other depends on what we need at the time.

This is, many would assert, what makes heroes. If someone has everything they need – even if that does not include stuff – they are in a better psychological position to help someone else without prompting or judgment. But if we’re both drowning, one of us is more likely to push the other below the water in an attempt to survive.

There is the issue of the Katrina victims who looted what wasn’t perishable: high-end electronic equipment. My husband asserted there is no explanation but greed for this kind of reprehensible behavior, but I disagreed.

From our living rooms, the act of looting non-essentials appears selfish and criminal. Put some of those TV viewers in the same situation, though – no home, no food, a loved one floating down the river – and you are likely to see the same thing: survival based on the delusion that anything is better than nothing; specifically, anything that might sell in the marketplace for a lot of money could then get what is needed. This delusion is capped off by the mistaken belief that the disaster or crisis did not also do away with the marketplace.

My husband has seen some of the most impoverished the world has to offer, including the oft-neglected poor in America. He equates the guy who stole the bread in New Orleans with the children of many an African nation, some as young as four-years-old, that surround U.S. military servicemembers as they exit their vehicles to beg or sell whatever wares they gathered on their way to the road. He equates the guy who stole the big screen TV with those men of African nations whose actions have obliterated all quality of life for these children. The New Orleans officer with the desperate need for law and order now knows what it feels like to be a peacekeeper in a war-torn African nation.

So what does define and differentiate the civilized from the savage? For all intent and purposes, nothing. That’s a truth as difficult to swallow as a sip of water from a puddle with a dead, bloated sheep floating in it.

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About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.
  • Marcia Neil

    Fine tribute to a hardy guy.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Diana, this should have been in the politics section where it would get the attention it deserves. Having lived on the street for a year in the States, I have some idea of what poverty means – and what it doesn’t mean. When homeless, I did not loot or steal or murder, though there were times I was angry enough to kill. But though I was homeless, I did not live in poverty, nor was I particularly oppressed.

    I had a chance to get out of the mess I had made of my own life – and I took it. Someone who lives in real poverty is stuck in whatever hell he finds himself in without even a vision of how to get out. Note the child playing next to the bloated body of a dead sheep.

    Very nice examination of the issues, though. Good job!

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    No, it is in its proper section. The article deserves better than the usual suspects commenting amongst themselves with the same tired arguments unrelated to the subject matter at hand.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    “No, it is in its proper section. The article deserves better than the usual suspects commenting amongst themselves with the same tired arguments unrelated to the subject matter at hand.”

    Sounds like something a communist leftie baby-killing draft dodger would say.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    who let you out of Sports, you fascist?!

  • http://www.twitter.com/tericee Teri Centner

    Great post today, Diana!

  • http://www.joannehuspek.wordpress.com Joanne Huspek

    Excellent piece, no matter what section it’s in.