Tragedy inspires both good, bad

Friday, September 9, 2005

The images and sounds from New Orleans and other nature-ripped areas of the Gulf Coast are an assault on our sensibilities in ways that only unimaginable tragedy can create.

I don't know if this is fair, but the breakdown in acceptable behavior that quickly became a prominent feature of news reports was, for me, a haunting reminder of scenes we saw on TV after the military invasion of Baghdad -- when we were expecting to see happy faces of liberated Iraqis and instead witnessed looting and mayhem.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I am even more convinced that the abandonment of the human values that are the glue of a civil society is not a phenomenon of war, but a reality of the combined forces of desperation and opportunity.

When no authority exists to maintain law and order, there are those who strive to create such an authority -- and there are those who would follow Jack in "Lord of the Flies."

In spite of the dark lessons of calamity, there have been countless examples of our human capability for doing good in the most perverse circumstances. While most of us in our dry homes pitched in with much-needed donations, thousands of others slogged through the muck up to their armpits offering assistance and, perhaps more importantly, hope.

Our capacity for goodness can be inspiring to the point of taking our breath away.

There has been an erosion in common courtesy in my lifetime. I arrived in this world just in time to have elders who, by their own example, set standards of civil behavior. I was expected to address my teachers as "Sir" and "Ma'am." I was expected to be polite. I was expected to tuck in my shirt and comb my hair as outward and visible signs of respect for my peers and my elders.

At lunch this week, my host was visiting with a woman who stopped by our table. He took the time to graciously introduce me, and I took the proffered hand of our visitor without bothering to stand up.

If my mother had been there ... . And if I had seen the look on her face ... .

And since when does a driver's license grant motorists the right to dispense with common courtesy while sitting behind a steering wheel?

Surely you've noticed it too.

Every day I am confronted with motorists who gun their vehicles into the path of my car with inches to spare. And if I honk at them, I get stares and gestures that make it perfectly clear who's the jerk.

Is that the way we are going to spend the rest of our lives? Taking advantage of others without regard for ordinary civility? Does every day have to start with a dark cloud, no matter how beautiful the sunshine is?

With all of the attention focused on gasoline prices right now, I still get a jolt when I see the signboards in front of the station at the corner of Broadway and Frederick Street.

That's the lowest gas price in town -- in the nation for that matter: $1.79 a gallon.

If only the station hadn't closed a few months ago.

Ah, the good old days.

Speaking of my mother: Her driving is pretty much limited to trips to church and the grocery store in a small town. She told me recently that her car, a behemoth made when cars were built like hippos, hasn't had a drop of $2-a-gallon gas in it yet. If she's not careful, her car will miss the $3 gas too.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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