Lord of the Flies

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Children throw trash on a lawn. Pit bulls, allowed to run loose, scatter the trash. Children walk across other people’s property, opening unlocked gates to fences and not closing them. Dogs run through one of the gates, dig into the recent grave of a beloved cat, and almost get to the body. When locks are put on those gates, children begin to dismantle the fence in the front yard. In exasperation, the sheriff is called.

This happened to a person I have known literally all my life. To some people, such actions may seem minor in a society in which violent crime is rampant. Yet big things can begin in small ways. Behavior that at first seems like childhood pranks can, without parental guidance, blow up into more serious behavior. And adults who do not care whether their dogs run–two of which attacked the owner–are dangerously irresponsible and reveal a lack of respect and caring for their neighbors.

When I was a child, if I ever disrespected someone else’s property, I would have gotten the belt from both my parents. But I never did show such disrespect–because it is how I was brought up. Most children in the United States, except for the children of those we used to call “trashy” people, were taught to respect other people’s property. If they have permission to take a short cut through someone’s yard that is one thing. To believe that they do such “because they want to” reflects the “me me me” attitude of both parents and children in many families. “I want to take a short cut through my neighbor’s property. So I will.” “I want to steal crops from his garden. So I will.” “I want to borrow items without returning them. So I will.” “I want to take an item from his mailbox. So I will.” “I will” is the product of pride, the primal sin–in the Christian tradition, Satan rebelled against God with the attitude, “Not Thy will, but mine, be done.” Human beings are fallen creatures, and human nature has been damaged (though not destroyed) by self-will. It is difficult to keep selfish desires under control–which is why parents used to take a firm hand in disciplining their children. Now such discipline should never become abusive, but it should be consistent and combined with moral teaching. Part of that teaching is that no one is owed anything by other people, that one should respect other people and their property, and that one should push aside one’s immediate desires for the greater good. The notion of being patient and delaying gratification seems to be missing from many people today, both children and adults. That is a path to barbarism, to Thomas HobbesState of Nature, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This is a Lord of the Flies world in which eventually the civilized and good people, such as Piggy in William Golding‘s novel, are killed, and children hunt with a stick shorted at both ends. Civilization lies on a thread, and what seems to be petty bad behavior can be the knife that cuts through the string of civilization. I can remember in Athens, Georgia, jogging with my Walkman, and children shouted “Look at him, wearing headphones like a girl!” I never would have dreamed saying that to an adult when I was a child. And children who do not respect adults will not respect anyone else.

Prime Minister Cameron of the U.K. recently said the riots were due to a “moral decline.” Despite pseudo-scientists mocking Mr. Cameron, he is correct. The rioters made self-centered, immoral decisions–because they were not brought up to respect other people. I fear for the future of Western Civilization–Western Society may end up in a situation like the chaos of the eight century, with only small groups of monks (or others who want to preserve civilization) keeping the light alive through the darkness of chaos and crime outside. God help us.