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The Thin Veneer of Civilization

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
NOTE: This column was originally published on October 16, 2002 which was about 13 months after the 9/11 attacks and, although I didn't know it at the time, about 13 months before I went to Iraq.

The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary defines the word "civilization" thus:

An ideal state of human culture characterized by complete absence of barbarism and non-rational behavior.

In the United States, we pretend to live our entire lives in a constant "State of Positive Assumptions." The central assumption is we DO live in a country "characterized by complete absence of barbarism and non-rational behavior."

In truth, the normal Assumption should be: We're never far from trouble, as trouble seems to come our way just about every 20 years.

September 11 sliced a big chunk from our Positive Assumptions. It showed us that the layer of human behavior which provides our understanding of civilization is very thin, indeed.

The most recent example of the stripping away of civilization's thin veneer, is the string of murders around the Washington metropolitan area.

The randomness of the killings - both in term of jurisdiction and victims - makes the spree all the more frightening.

The murder of a woman walking out of a Home Depot the other night took the murders from being merely terrifying, to being petrifying.

Where and when to fill a car with gasoline has become a tactical exercise:

Wait until there is an available spot among the pumps farthest from the street.


Pull in to the side of the pump which places your gas cap toward the building, putting the vehicle between you and the street.

Swipe your credit card (pressing the "no" button when asked if you will want a receipt), start the pump, walk briskly inside the building, and wait there until your tank is full.

Before returning to your car, survey the area.

Moving rapidly, replace the pump and the gas cap, get back into your vehicle and drive away as quickly as possible.

This is not the first time we have been through this. 20 years ago, in the Fall of 1982, the concept of a "tamper-proof seal" on just about every item on our grocery store shelves was unknown. Then someone put potassium cyanide into Extra Strength Tylenol capsules and seven people died in the Chicago area.

The Positive Assumption that the items we bought were inherently safe, was shattered.

20 years before that, in 1962, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Positive Assumption that no one would set out to kill a sitting President was destroyed.

That act, led to the anti-war and race riots which marked the Sixties culminating in the political assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; the riots at the Democratic National Convention all in 1968, and the Kent State shootings in 1970.


Two decades before the Kennedy assassination, in December 1941, the United States was shocked out of its State of Positive Assumptions by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Innocent questions about what, if any, role the United States had in the outcome of the war in Europe and Asia were suddenly, shockingly answered.

Does this sound at all familiar?

Only twelve years before Pearl Harbor, October 29, 1929, the stock market crash signaled the beginning of the Great Depression.

Twenty years before that, in 1908, Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina beginning the countdown sequence which led to the outbreak of World War I when the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated six years later.

Civilization, as we know it - or hope for it to be - is nothing more than a thin veneer. It takes good people, acting in concert, to keep that veneer in good repair.

Now would be a good time for a lot of good people to get in tune.

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