It’s been a quiet hurricane season in Louisiana so far, and we want it to stay that way.
No one who lived through Hurricane Katrina — or Rita, Gustav or any other major storm — could sensibly want a repeat performance of those tragedies.
But is there any silver lining in such disasters, in spite of — or perhaps because of — the pain they cause? That question rests at the heart of “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” a new book by Sebastian Junger. Junger is best known as the writer behind “The Perfect Storm,” his nonfiction account of a 1991 storm along the Eastern seaboard and the terrible wrath it inflicted on a fishing vessel in its path. The book was later adapted into a major motion picture.
In his new book, Junger considers the special bonds that soldiers develop in war and how their sense of connection is rooted in the danger and hardship they face. That leads him to the broader question of how other kinds of danger, such as earthquakes, storms and enemy attacks against communities, can make us feel a shared sense of purpose against adversity. Junger wonders how that we’re-all-in-this-together feeling can be sustained, even after an immediate crisis has passed.
Hurricane Katrina figures into Junger’s thinking. “Communities that have been devastated by natural or man-made disasters almost never lapse into chaos and disorder; if anything, they become more just, more egalitarian, and more deliberately fair to individuals,” he tells readers. “Despite erroneous news reports, New Orleans experienced a drop in crime rates after Katrina, and much of the ‘looting’ turned out to be people looking for food.”
Readers may disagree with some of Junger’s conclusions about Katrina. But his larger point — that adversity can spark a lot of good in people — certainly chimes with the outpouring of kindness and resolve we saw after Katrina’s devastation. “Adversity often leads people to depend more on one another, and that closeness can produce a kind of nostalgia for the hard times that even civilians are susceptible to,” Junger notes. “After World War II, many Londoners claimed to miss the exciting and perilous days of the Blitz. … What people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender. There are obvious stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation. …”
The collective resolve we find in times of trouble — and our ability to make that common sense of purpose a fixture of our civic life — is the real engine of human progress, Junger suggests. “That sense of solidarity is at the core of what it means to be human and undoubtedly helped deliver us to this extraordinary moment in our history,” he writes. “It may also be the only thing that allows us to survive it.”