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Washington's Finest Moment

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
For all the talk of incivility in the Nation's capital, the last week has restored my faith in the basic decency of the people who live there. Although the storm that hit Washington and the surrounding area June 29 has not received as much national attention as hurricanes, tornados, and other natural disasters usually do, the human toll has been high. In the Washington metro area alone, five people died in the storm and more than 20 have died subsequently from the heat, as hundreds of thousands suffered days without electrical power. But through it all, most people have behaved admirably.

The storm, known as a derecho, came without warning. Winds as high as 90 miles per hour ripped through the suburbs, felling trees and downing power lines. Lightning lit up the skies in a nonstop show of Nature's fury, as water lashed against buildings and anyone unlucky enough to get caught outside unawares. The city and suburbs went dark -- and stayed that way for hours, even days. Tens of thousands in the area still do not have power.

Those who could afford it sought shelter in hotels in areas where electricity was available. But demand overcame supply, and within hours, no rooms were available in a 60-mile radius. Thankfully, many residents who had power opened their homes to the less fortunate.

But perhaps the most remarkable show of civility occurred on the streets. Traffic lights were out in wide swaths of the region, making already hazardous driving conditions caused by debris-ridden streets even more dangerous. It was a recipe for anarchy, but instead, most people used common sense and courtesy to make driving possible.

I took to the streets the afternoon after the storm hit. As I approached the first traffic light outage, I was amazed to see that nearly everyone treated the intersection as a four-way stop. Drivers stopped at the intersection and let the cross traffic through, a few cars at a time. If only two cars were at the intersection, drivers yielded to the right, allowing a smooth flow of traffic without backups or collisions.


Patience seemed to rule the day. It wasn't perfect; there were some drivers who seemed oblivious to the spontaneous application of basic traffic rules -- or thought they could take advantage by ignoring them -- but most people abided. Left to their own devices, the great majority cooperated to the benefit of all.

This says something more about our society than simply that people pull together in a crisis. It speaks to the essential character of Americans. We obey the law and follow the rules largely out of sense that it is the right thing to do.

We line up in queues without being forced to, a simple enough custom but not one universally followed in many places, as any international traveller can attest. We pay the taxes we owe, even though the chances of being caught cheating are relatively low. We don't run red lights, even in the middle of the night. We don't steal, even when no one is looking and goods are left unprotected.

Without such internal, personal controls on behavior, life would be hellish. The 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes said that in nature without government, "life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." But Hobbes' view was devoid of the concept of natural law, which John Locke described this way: "The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind . . . ."


When ordinary people are left on their own, without enough police to govern their action or government to provide the services they need, either they behave rationally -- according to reason -- and survive or they ignore that inner morality and risk everyone's life, including their own. Washingtonians and their neighbors in Maryland and Virginia displayed enormous self-control last week. Now if only the politicians who live here could display that same principle in government, the country would be a better place.

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