The Thin Veneer of Civilisation

A fifteen year old rural Afghan girl named Gisa was killed last week allegedly by a spurned suitor because her father turned down his marriage offer. Sadly this is only the latest gruesome story to emerge from Afghanistan.  Mutilation and beheading as a means of preserving a family’s ‘ honor’ are not uncommon in the lawless regions of this troubled land.

Our initial reaction is one of utter disgust giving way to a sense of moral superiority. ‘How is it’ we ask ourselves ‘that such savages still exist in the twenty first century?’ What human being could possibly equate honour with the violent murder of a member of one’s own family? The moral outrage we feel is a combination of revulsion and self-righteousness. The more primitive the crime the more distant we feel from its perpetrators confirming our own civilised status.

But civilization is thin veneer that can be torn off at any time depending on circumstances.

Long before Thomas Hobbs’ Leviathan and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies the first century Rabbi Haninah urged his students to: ‘ Pray for the welfare of the government for if not for fear of it, people would swallow one another alive.’ His assertion has particular poignancy when one realizes that the government he is referring to is the Roman colonial power that destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem – a traumatic event that the rabbi witnessed first-hand. Still he believed that any government is preferable to anarchy.

We are suitably repelled by the atrocities in Afghanistan not because we are intrinsically incapable of such vile acts ourselves but because we had the good fortune to be born into a society governed and under-girded by the rule of law. The moment that were to slip, all bets are off as to how we might behave under challenging circumstances. Rural uneducated Afghans, are not the only people to display savage behavior in that country. Clean-cut American soldiers committed terrible atrocities at the Bagram military prison, not to mention the crimes their colleagues committed in Iraq at Abu Grahib. Anything is possible when operating in a legal vacuum and the speed with which civilised man can travel back in time is deeply disturbing.

Civilisations based on the rule of law are not mere accidents. They are the result of a conscious effort by human beings to compensate for their own inherent weaknesses. The ability to engage in honest and penetrating self-criticism is what sets humans apart and enables them to live decent and meaningful lives.

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