Historian Timothy Garton Ash argues that what he calls “decivilization” lies very close to the surface of human life. Add a natural disaster or human tragedy, and the base instincts of human nature soon triumph over order and respect for other human beings.
Writing in The Guardian [London], Ash argued: You think the looting, rape and armed terror that emerged within hours in New Orleans would never happen in nice, civilised Europe? Think again. It happened here, all over our continent only 60 years ago. Read the memoirs of Holocaust and gulag survivors, Norman Lewis’s account of Naples in 1944, or the recently republished anonymous diary of a German woman in Berlin in 1945. It happened again in Bosnia just 10 years ago. And that wasn’t even the force majeure of a natural disaster. Europe’s were man-made hurricanes.
The basic point is the same: remove the elementary staples of organised, civilised life – food, shelter, drinkable water, minimal personal security – and we go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all. Some people, some of the time, behave with heroic solidarity; most people, most of the time, engage in a ruthless fight for individual and genetic survival.
This is a very dark view of humanity, rooted in a tradition of thought that owes much to Thomas Hobbes and his bleak pessimism. The Christian worldview alone explains why human beings act as they do (because they are sinners) and need the restraining grace of God granted through law, government, and social conventions.