Americans, who rely on faith and fortune for so many of their most successful endeavours, are beginning to ask how those qualities have failed them so badly. Why is it that in some places struck by catastrophes of similar magnitude, entire societies pull together in enriching acts of mutual assistance, while other societies collapse into self-annihilation?
"Philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes tried to imagine what a 'state of nature' looked like -- we're now seeing it inside the United States and it's really brutal," says Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston University who has written widely on the fragile foundations of U.S. society. "We're going to have to ask: 'How did we allow this to happen?'"
In much poorer societies, such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka after the Boxing Day tsunami, or in more polarized societies like Montreal during the 1998 ice storm, scenes of looting, violence and selfish desperation did not occur. But the large U.S. cities of the South have a very different sort of group psychology, in which faith in individual fortune replaces the fixed social roles that keep other places aloft during crises.
In U.S. cities like New Orleans, in the analysis of the American-British organizational psychologist Cary Cooper, social cohesion depends on a shared belief that individual hard work, good luck and God's grace will bring a person out of poverty and into prosperity. But those very qualities can destroy the safety net of mutual support that might otherwise help people in an emergency.
"Fear itself motivates people in the U.S. -- the fear that you could lose everything," Prof. Cooper said in an interview yesterday from his office at the University of Lancaster. "That creates the best in American society, the inventiveness, but the moment the net is pulled out, it becomes a terrible jungle." . . .
There are exceptions: The extraordinary mass acts of mutual support that followed the Sept. 11 attacks in Lower Manhattan or the floods in the Dakotas, for instance, or the charitable activity that has all but ended the AIDS crisis in the United States.
But historians point to a constant threat of self-destructive breakdowns that seem to dot U.S. history, belying the thin veneer of civility that sits between entrepreneurial prosperity and mass chaos. The individualistic, egalitarian, anti-authoritarian values that have made the United States succeed have always been accompanied by an every-man-for-himself ethos that can destroy the system itself.