(note uncharacteristically heavy blog disclaimer)
If you have never read The Lord of the Flies by William Golding I'd recommend you get your copy now. You can even order it on Kindle. It's almost two decades since I last read it, but few novels are so chilling, moving or relevant.
You don't realize its significance immediately. A group of kids are marooned on a tropical island after a plane crash that kills the pilot. They eat berries and try to set up a primitive society. Then slowly but surely a darkness moves in their midst. The boys split into two groups those who want to carve out a society and those who descend into savagery. The result is war and devastation.
Many people are very familiar with this novel so, if so, ignore the last paragraph.
Still Golding's novel touches on an interesting question. How far removed are we from the savagery we like to associate with the past?
Most of us were born into Western Civilization. People were law abiding and those who failed to obey the rules were dealt with by a well established system of justice. But how easy can it break down? People went to work and usually came back. We invited our neighbors round for tea. We tended not to kill them. Judging by some of my childhood memories there was a propensity to bore them to death.
I have had lively discussions with people who argue human beings are essentially good. I'm not convinced by it. My own belief is the screen that separates civilization from anarchy is more flimsy that we think and easy to punch a hole in. Maybe I have seen too much yellow tape during my days as a crime reporter.
About 25 years ago I visited the former Yugoslavia with my sister. Dubrovnik with its old churches, city walls, sleepy cafes and tourist shops on the glittering Adriatic could have been Italy or Greece. Still there was some latent savagery up in the hills that bore the name of Tito carved in a giant relief. We took a bus south to Montenegro and stopped at a place called Bar that comprised a weed strewn sea front against a backdrop of monolithic towers of an ugliness perfected by the old Eastern bloc.
We had no idea why we were here. Later we realized we had incorrectly written down the name of a place we were seeking from a friend back in England. We stayed in a ramshackle room and the owners of the pension invited us to sample the local spirit as they talked in hushed tones about the prospect of war in Kosovo. They spoke of the recent nationalist speech delivered by the Yugolslav leader Slobodan Milošević, on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, and his reference to the possibility of "armed battles," in the future of Serbia's national development.
It was hard to look at the mountains and the gentle coast and to imagine war in this peaceful backwater.
But a year later war was looming Yugoslavia with its many ethnic divisions as the Serbian dominated army turned on the other nationalities. Slovenia broke away followed by Croatia. At Vukovar in eastern Croatia, Serbian forces and paramilitaries mounted an 87 day siege with heavy armor and artillery. During
the battle, shells and rockets were fired into the city at a rate of up
to 12,000 a day, the most ferocious bombardment seen in Europe since Stalingrad in 1942. When the city was finally overrun, patients were dragged from a hospital and killed.
Over the next four years the former Yugoslavia descended into a nightmare. Refugees huddled under mortar fire under the same walls we had taken photos of in Dubrovnik, while in Bosnia, Serbians and Croats attacked Muslim Bosnians and pictures of emaciated people seen in concentration camps of the kind we hoped had been banished for ever since the Nazi horror, returned. Sarajevo, a city that had recently hosted the winter Olympics, became the scene of a Medieval style siege as Serbian forces shelled the Bosnian inhabitants for almost four years.
The Bosnian conflict was shocking on so many levels. The notion of "ethnic cleansing" with its casual homage to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, harked back to a barbarity that was meant to never happen again with the creation of the United Nations. The conflict also saw mass rape return as an instrument of war with an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 women raped. It was a war in which people who had lived peacefully next to each other for decades, turned on each other and killed and raped.
In 1995, I had returned from the beach in Turkey. We stopped off in Oxford and sat on a sunny afternoon on a table by the water meadows, looking over the fable Dreaming Spires. I picked up a copy of The Independent and a heavy cloud passed over the sun and my post holiday euphoria as I read about how Serbian forces had overrun the desperate little town of Srebrenica, nominally a UN safe haven. More than 8,000 men and boys had been removed from the town. Srebrenica has since become a by word for the horrors of war because we know they were taken to fields and summarily executed.
Today an uneasy peace remains over the place once known as Yugoslavia and the famous Medieval bridge that was blown up at Mostar has been rebuilt.
But the events of those years made me aware of the indelible darkness that lingers in the human spirit. The death toll in Syria currently stands at more than 115,000 including 11,000 children. It's quickly becoming a conflict on the scale of Bosnia.
In America it's easy to turn off the news. We only hear about Syria when the President is considering sending in US planes. We hear nothing about the Central African Republic. A handful of hapless people will have tortured and killed in the time it takes to read this article.
But is it so easy to shut out. Every now and then a maniac with a gun shoots up a school or a shopping center. We can turn off the TV and lock the doors, but it's more difficult to lock out the thing that's dark and nihilistic within us.