When Things Fall Apart : Throughline Climate change, political unrest, random violence - Western society can often feel like what the filmmaker Werner Herzog calls, "a thin layer of ice on top of an ocean of chaos and darkness." In the United States, polls indicate that many people believe that law and order is the only thing protecting us from the savagery of our neighbors, that the fundamental nature of humanity is competition and struggle. This idea is often called "veneer theory." But is this idea rooted in historical reality? Is this actually what happens when societies face disasters? Are we always on the cusp of brutality?

When Things Fall Apart

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RUTGER BREGMAN: An old man says to his grandson, there's a fight going on inside me.


BREGMAN: It's a terrible fight between two wolves.


BREGMAN: One is evil, angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant and cowardly.


BREGMAN: The other is good, peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest and trustworthy.


BREGMAN: These two wolves are also fighting within you and inside every other person, too.


BREGMAN: After a moment, the boy asks, which wolf will win? The old man smiles - the one you feed.


BREGMAN: What we assume in other people is what we get out of them. Our view of human nature tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we assume that people are fundamentally selfish, then that's how they will behave. If we assume that people are fundamentally decent, then maybe we can create a very different kind of society.


This is Rutger Bregman.

BREGMAN: I'm a Dutch historian, and I'm the author of the book "Humankind: A Hopeful History."

ARABLOUEI: But this story doesn't start off hopeful.

REBECCA SOLNIT: There's a very widespread assumption that human beings are basically selfish, brutal, barbarian...

ARABLOUEI: And this is author Rebecca Solnit.

SOLNIT: ...Cowardly - just sort of despicable and that civilization is some sort of structural overlay that keeps us from realizing our true brutal natures, preventing us from doing what we would really do if we could do anything we wanted, which would be rape, loot, pillage, maraud, steal.


ARABLOUEI: And that idea that if you take away civilization that people are essentially evil has been an easy sell.


HEATH LEDGER: (As the Joker) Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.

BREGMAN: So many of these Hollywood movies, like "Batman," gives us a very simplistic view of how evil really works.

ARABLOUEI: The story of Batman has always been about the battle of good versus evil - the two wolves, Batman and the Joker.


CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Batman) This city just showed you that it's full of people ready to believe in good.

LEDGER: (As the Joker) Until their spirit breaks completely.

ARABLOUEI: In the film "The Dark Knight," the Joker tries to convince Batman that everyone, from the mayor to the people of Gotham, are all just out for themselves.


LEDGER: (As the Joker) I'll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve.

BREGMAN: Yeah. The Joker's really interesting. He's the quintessential stereotypical depiction of evil in our culture, I would say.


LEDGER: (As the Joker, laughter).


So the Joker believes that everybody is dark, selfish, maybe even a little evil, like how we really are, and Batman is good. These two sides are a trope as old as storytelling, an idea that plays into something called the thin veneer theory.


BREGMAN: Veneer theory is a very old idea that's deeply entrenched in Western culture. It goes like this. Supposedly, our civilization is just a thin layer, just a thin veneer, and below that lies raw human nature.


BREGMAN: The theory basically says that humans deep down are fundamentally selfish, or maybe even worse than that. Maybe we're even beasts or monsters...


ABDELFATAH: ...And the only thing keeping us from eating each other is civilization - basically hierarchy, governments, law and order. And when that's taken away...

BREGMAN: Then when something happens - just a crisis, a natural disaster - maybe a war breaks out - then people show who they really are. Then that veneer, it cracks.


ABDELFATAH: Civilization goes away.

BREGMAN: And, yes, our true human nature is revealed.


ABDELFATAH: This is an idea that many of us accept as truth. But what if veneer theory doesn't actually hold up against scrutiny? What if it's a story we tell ourselves? What if it's just...

SOLNIT: Justifying shackles, authoritarianism, overlords, justifying institutional violence, bosses, justifying inequality, holding us all in place, justifying lack of rights and freedoms, hierarchies of social controls...


GREG GUTFELD: Things fall apart. That is why you have prisons and you have laws, you have borders and you have standards.

SOLNIT: And the science, the evidence, the sociology doesn't really support that, but a lot of people believe it, and it props up a lot of social structures that I think themselves are pretty brutal.


TUCKER CARLSON: Dystopia is a world where the police will not protect you.


SARAH KELLY: Authorities in China are strengthening their efforts to stamp out unrest over stringent COVID measures.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Tehran has been using death sentences as a way to intimidate people.

MARSHA BLACKBURN: The American people know that there is rising crime across this country.

STEPHEN MILLER: You have actual gang members killing people in cold blood in broad daylight. But who do they want to go after? Donald Trump.


ARABLOUEI: The world can often feel like a cold, brutal place. If you turn on the news or scroll social media, you're probably going to see dark stories about things happening in the world. It can feel isolating and scary and, a lot of times, hopeless. It can be easy to believe that the only thing keeping us from total chaos is that thin veneer of civilization. But what if the thin veneer is what's causing the problem? - a fragile shell, a cover that's actually preventing us from having a better world.

ABDELFATAH: On this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, how we've come to believe veneer theory and the stories that make us fear one another and how it might be time to tell a different story, to feed the other wolf.


GRACE BROWN: Hi, my name is Grace Brown, and I'm from Upland, Ind., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part one - the weaker springs of human nature.


J C HOWARD: (As Alexander Hamilton, reading) To judge from the history of mankind, we shall be compelled to conclude that the fiery and destructive passions of war reign in the human breast with much more powerful sway than the mild and beneficent sentiments of peace...

ARABLOUEI: These are words from the Federalist Papers, a series of essays that argued in favor of the Constitution of the United States of America.

HOWARD: (As Alexander Hamilton, reading) ...And that to model our political systems upon speculations of lasting tranquility is to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character.

ARABLOUEI: The essays paint a bleak picture of human nature, that without government and civilization, people would hurt each other whenever the opportunity presented itself.

HOWARD: (As Alexander Hamilton, reading) A fondness for power is implanted in most men, and it is natural to abuse it when acquired.

BREGMAN: And this is actually something that the Founding Fathers really had in mind when they were designing the Constitution.

HOWARD: (As Alexander Hamilton, reading) We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union...

BREGMAN: And that's why they wanted to create this elaborate balance of power, because they believe that if they wouldn't have that veneer of civilization, that, you know, hell will break loose.


HOWARD: (As Alexander Hamilton, reading) One great error is that we suppose mankind is more honest than they are. Our prevailing passions are ambition and interest - Alexander Hamilton.


LESLIE ODOM JR: (As Aaron Burr, singing) How does a bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished...


ARABLOUEI: Alexander Hamilton was one of the main authors of the Federalist Papers. He's been immortalized in recent years by Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical, and those were his words you've been hearing.

HOWARD: (As Alexander Hamilton, reading) A fondness for power is implanted in most men, and it is natural to abuse it when acquired.

ARABLOUEI: He's seen as an immigrant, an innovator and a patriot. And while those things may be true, what's often left out of his story is that he was very pessimistic about human nature, and that wasn't exactly original or unique for his time.

ABDELFATAH: He was articulating a very old view of human beings as fundamentally bad and in need of civilization to behave well. This idea shows up in societies all over the world. But in the West, where we're going to focus this episode, the idea was most potently captured by one of Europe's most famous philosophers, Thomas Hobbes.

NEIL STRICKLAND: (Reading) During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man.

BREGMAN: And he argued that back in the state of nature, we lived lives that were, in his famous words, nasty, brutish and short.

STRICKLAND: (Reading) In such condition, there is no place for industry because the fruit thereof is uncertain and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

BREGMAN: It was only when we gave up our liberty, and we appointed a powerful ruler that he called a Leviathan, it was only then that we established peace. So yes, we lost our liberty, but we gained security in return. That's the grand bargain that we made with the rise of civilization.

ABDELFATAH: Thomas Hobbes thought a strong government was necessary to keep us from killing each other, from devolving into a state of mutual destruction. And if you look at the time and place he was born, it's easy to understand why he might have seen the world this way.

SOLNIT: Thomas Hobbes was an Englishman who lived during the civil wars, which were bloody and nasty in that country, and they're often blamed for shaping his political philosophy.

ABDELFATAH: From 1642 to 1651, English elites fought each other in a series of wars over governance and religious freedom. Thomas Hobbes lived during these brutal, bloody wars. But author Rebecca Solnit argues that a deeper backdrop was that Thomas Hobbes lived in a very Christian society.

SOLNIT: In which one of the fundamental beliefs was that somehow, we fell from grace, were kicked out of paradise and were fallen and somehow had to be redeemed through Jesus and the church. So Christianity itself has, if not a thin veneer theory, at least a theory that human beings are kind of a mess that need some cleanup work.

ABDELFATAH: Hobbes's idea caught on quickly and influenced politicians and philosophers for generations, all the way up to Alexander Hamilton. He put into words long-held beliefs about human nature, and he did this at a time when Europeans were colonizing much of the earth and looking for justifications.

SOLNIT: Hobbes's idea that somehow you need authoritarian structures to control people corresponds really well to imperialism and colonialism, people who saw themselves as civilization imposing order on chaos.

BREGMAN: It's been strongly developed in Western culture since the dawn of civilization. Obviously, rulers have always looked for justifications of their power, and this has always been one of the most logical and straightforward explanations. Like, we need to be in power to protect you from yourself.

A hundred years after Thomas Hobbes published his famous book "Leviathan," another philosopher came along, and his name was Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

LAURENT LASSABLIERE: (Reading) Civilization is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evil it produces.

BREGMAN: And in almost every single way, he believed the opposite of what Hobbes had argued.

LASSABLIERE: Every man having been born free and master of himself, no one else may under any pretext whatever subject him without his consent.

BREGMAN: According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, our life in the state of nature was actually pretty good. We were quite healthy. We had lots of exercise. We had a varied diet, and it was pretty peaceful as well. But then everything went wrong when we gave up our liberty, and we invented private property, and we settled down in villages and cities, and we created this thing called civilization.

SOLNIT: Human beings in a state of nature are pure and innocent and good, and society is what corrupts them.

BREGMAN: So according to Rousseau, civilization was not what saved us, but it was our downfall.

This big debate between Hobbes and Rousseau, it really lies at the heart of our biggest political discussions, between the realists and the idealists, between conservatives and progressives. You know, very often when we're debating each other on Twitter, it's basically Hobbes and Rousseau all over again.

ARABLOUEI: What is the essential nature of humanity? Are we inherently good or inherently bad? Are we more prone to being selfish individuals or helpful members of communities? Maybe the way we collectively answer these questions dictates how we structure our society.

BREGMAN: Our theory of human nature has absolutely massive implications for pretty much everything. So just to give a couple of examples, education - if you believe that kids are fundamentally lazy and selfish, then you need a quite hierarchical schooling system. But if you think that kids are naturally curious and creative, then maybe you don't need, you know, all that homework. Maybe you can just give kids the freedom to decide for themselves what they find interesting.

If you are the CEO of a company, if you believe that your employees are fundamentally selfish, well, what are you going to do? You need a lot of bureaucracy, probably. Maybe you're going to place cameras to make sure that your employees don't steal equipment. If you believe that your employees are fundamentally cooperative and actually want to do what's best for the company, then maybe you can work in self-directed teams, and you don't need all those managers, and you can actually rely on people's intrinsic motivation. So again and again and again, our view of human nature has pretty practical implications for how we live our lives.

SOLNIT: It's very useful to the authorities and people invested in those structures to believe in their own value and necessity. And essentially, it's a justification for hierarchy, for authority, for the violence that authorities impose, which is always justified as, like, oh, we're bombing these people to prevent violence. The police are shooting these people to prevent violence. We're beating these people up to prevent disorder.

ARABLOUEI: And all of this brings us back to the essential debate.

BREGMAN: Who was right? Was Thomas Hobbes right, or was Jean-Jacques Rousseau right? Was civilization our salvation, or has it been our doom?

ARABLOUEI: The truth is, Hobbes and Rousseau were both kind of just making stuff up. They had very little evidence for their viewpoints. Modern science was in its infancy when they were alive. These were just ideas that popped into their heads. So...

BREGMAN: For a long time, this was just a philosophical question, and there was not really a way to resolve the debate. But now that's different. Now we've got the evidence from modern anthropology, archaeology, and I think we can actually say who was more or less right.


ABDELFATAH: Coming up, we revisit one of the most famous psychological experiments ever conducted and find out why we feed the wolf we feed.


BILAL ABADARI: Hey, this is Bilal Abadari (ph) from Baton Rouge, La., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 2 - Feeding the Wolf.


PHILIP ZIMBARDO: As a psychologist, I have focused my career about understanding how ordinary people or good people get seduced to doing bad things, evil things, if you will.

ARABLOUEI: The voice you just heard is American psychologist Philip Zimbardo, speaking to a Dutch public broadcaster, VPRO, back in 2011.


ZIMBARDO: And I have focused on trying to understand the power of situations and systems to dominate individuals.

ARABLOUEI: Maybe you've never heard of him, but the study he conducted back in 1971 at Stanford University might ring a bell.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: These are not prisoners, and this is not a prison. They are college students, and they were part of an astonishing experiment.

BREGMAN: The Stanford prison experiment is the most famous experiment in the history of psychology, and it was done by a young psychologist named Philip Zimbardo. And he had a pretty simple idea. He recruited 24 students, and he said to 12 of them, you're going to be the guards, and to the other 12, you're going to be the prisoners. And so he put these prisoners in a fake prison in the basement of Stanford University.

ARABLOUEI: Zimbardo and his team wanted to see what happened when people either became guards or prisoners. The prisoners' rights movement had started the decade before, and Zimbardo wanted to show how the U.S. prison system was failing.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There, they were led to a simulated prison block consisting of three small cells, a narrow hallway and a closet designed for solitary confinement. This would be their entire world for two weeks.

ARABLOUEI: The experiment was filmed by Zimbardo and his research team. And on the first day, it was mostly uneventful. The students playing prisoners were taken and put into their cells. But then, on the second day of the experiment...

BREGMAN: Things began to unravel.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There was a very sharp change in the whole nature of what was happening in that prison.

BREGMAN: There was a rebellion among the inmates.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: They refused to eat. They barricaded themselves in their cells. They started ripping off their numbers, started screaming out obscenities at the guards.

BREGMAN: And that was countered by the guards with fire extinguishers. And after that, the guards, you know, basically did all kinds of terrible things. They tried to break their subordinates.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The guards then began to escalate their use of power. Some of them had prisoners clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands, to do things which were really degrading and humiliating. And the prisoners did it without complaining, just did it because this is what they had to do.

BREGMAN: And there was actually one inmate who really, you know, went ballistic. He started screaming - and I'm quoting here - "I mean, Jesus Christ, I'm burning up inside. Don't you know? I want to get out. This is all f***** up inside. I can't stand another night. I just can't take it anymore."


BREGMAN: So that's one of the reasons that the Stanford Prison Experiment became so famous - because if you just look at the video of it, it's very, very powerful. And you think, what happened to these guys?


BREGMAN: And the story, as it's been told for, well, half a century, was that these guards - they initially described themselves as hippies, pacifists - right? - who would never hurt a fly. But then in the context of being in that prison and being handed this power over the prisoners, they turned into monsters. So it's a very powerful illustration of veneer theory, right? These boys showed who they really were once they were in that situation.

ABDELFATAH: The results of the Stanford Prison Experiment made it into almost all psychology textbooks. And its essential takeaway that, given the right context, human beings will be quick to act brutally was often accepted uncritically.

BREGMAN: That's basically the story that's been taught for decades and decades. It's incredibly famous in the United States, in Europe, in Asia. I recently visited Japan. Everyone knows about the Stanford Prison Experiment there as well.

ABDELFATAH: But why was the conclusion of this study so easy to believe and accept? Well, according to Rutger, it's because it provides, quote, "scientific evidence" for what Thomas Hobbes was arguing centuries before.

BREGMAN: The way I see it is that they were just telling a very old story with basically the same message. People, deep down, are just rotten. We are rotten to the core.


ABDELFATAH: But when Rutger was writing his book, "Humankind: A Hopeful History," he wanted to find out whether anyone had actually really looked into the Stanford Prison Experiment. And that's when he...

BREGMAN: Stumbled upon this study published in French. It's a study by a sociologist called Thibault Le Texier.

ABDELFATAH: Thibault Le Texier.

BREGMAN: The title in French is "The History Of A Lie."

ABDELFATAH: It was first published in 2018.

BREGMAN: This is astounding. He was the first one to go into the archives of the Stanford Prison Experiment to study what really happened.

ABDELFATAH: For the most part, Zimbardo's results were accepted. No one had gone into the source materials to investigate it further.

BREGMAN: There was the archival material that could be looked at.

ABDELFATAH: Le Texier got on a plane and flew to California, went to Stanford and did just that.

BREGMAN: And what he found was really, really shocking.

ARABLOUEI: Le Texier spent hours and hours looking through videos and documents that showed...

BREGMAN: These students were being pressured all the time to behave as nasty and sadistic as possible.

ARABLOUEI: And they weren't all up for it. Some student guards said things like...

BREGMAN: If it were up to me, I would just, you know, sit here and play cards and make music together with the inmates.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The guards then began to escalate their use of power.

BREGMAN: But that's obviously not the result that Philip Zimbardo wanted. So he, together with one of his co-researcher, a man named David Jaffe - they basically pulled a huge amount of tricks to convince these students to start behaving in a really terrible way.

ARABLOUEI: David Jaffe, Zimbardo's co-researcher, also played the role of prison warden. In one of the recordings from the Stanford Archives, you can hear him pushing one of the guards in the experiment to be tough on the inmates.


DAVID JAFFE: But we really want to get you actively involved because the guards have to know that every guard is going to be what we call a tough guard.

ARABLOUEI: Jaffe tells the participant he has to be a tough guard, to which the participant responds...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I'm not too tough.

ARABLOUEI: I'm not too tough.


JAFFE: Well, you have to kind of try and get it in you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Well, I don't know about that.

ARABLOUEI: This experiment was supposed to show that in a prison, guards would naturally begin to act sadistically towards prisoners. But when some of the students playing guards refused to treat prisoners badly, the experimenters appealed to their values.

BREGMAN: And so they said to the students, like, you're progressive, right? You want this. You also, you know, want the criminal justice system in the U.S. to be reformed quite radically. So come on. Play along with this. We need these results.


JAFFE: It's really important for the workings of the experiment because this - you know, whether or not we can make this thing seem like a prison, which is the aim of the thing, depends largely on the guards' behavior.

BREGMAN: If the subjects already sort of know, if they can guess what the point of the experiment is, then obviously the experiment is not very scientific. Then it's just a play that people are participating in. This is, like, the opposite of science. I asked Le Texier for my book if there's still something we can learn from the Stanford prison experiment, and he said, well, basically everything that can go wrong in science - that's what we learn about it.

ABDELFATAH: Zimbardo has acknowledged that there were problems with the methodology of his study, but he defends the study's conclusions and says the experiment was a cautionary tale of what would happen to anyone if we underestimate the power of social roles and systemic structures.


ARABLOUEI: And how did this end up affecting Zimbardo's career?

BREGMAN: Oh, actually, he had a fantastic career. He became the head of the American Psychological Association. He's the most famous living psychologist in the world today.


ZIMBARDO: What makes people go wrong? Interestingly, I asked this question when I was a little kid.

I want to share with you some ideas about the secret power of time in a very short...

ABDELFATAH: These are some clips of Zimbardo giving talks on a range of topics. He's also played by Billy Crudup in the 2015 feature film about the Stanford prison experiment, which currently has an 84% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The experiment clearly has entertainment value, so 30 years after Zimbardo, another group of psychologists adapted the idea to television.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: In 2001, professors Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher set up another experimental situation involving men assigned to the roles of guards and prisoners. This experiment was filmed by the BBC.

BREGMAN: The BBC had an idea of creating a new reality television show, and they had heard about the Stanford prison experiment. They had seen the footage, and they were like, this is great television, right? This should be great for ratings.

ABDELFATAH: So they asked two psychology professors to replicate the Stanford prison experiment, which they would then turn into a reality TV show. This is Alex Haslam, one of those psychologists, speaking about the experiment.


ALEX HASLAM: Whereas in Zimbardo's study, he didn't have much - or much or any kind of ethical oversee - oversight of the project as a whole, in our study, we had an ethical committee on site that was monitoring all aspects of the study and were explicitly there to ensure that we didn't have any of the kind of abuses of the form that were manifested in Zimbardo's study.

BREGMAN: So there would be no interference in the experiment. They would just leave the prisoners alone and watch what would happen.

ABDELFATAH: The experiment took place over the course of nine days. Cameras were rolling the entire time, and they turned all that tape into four episodes of reality TV.

BREGMAN: I have watched the whole BBC prison experiment. I'll never get those hours back. It was the most boring thing I've ever seen. Nothing happens. It just goes on and on and on for hours. It's so incredibly boring.

ABDELFATAH: Some prisoners escaped from their cells, but there was no abuse from the guards, no uprising.

ARABLOUEI: The fact is, the results of the Stanford prison experiment were not replicated. Without coaching from the people running the experiment, the guards didn't become abusive bullies. Still, despite the BBC show and Le Texier's review, the Stanford prison experiment still persists as an example of thin veneer theory, the idea that without the constraints of civilization, humans would basically eat each other.


ARABLOUEI: Why do you think this study has been so persistent? Like, even though people have clearly debunked it, why do people still believe in it?

BREGMAN: It's just exciting. It's a fantastic, compelling story. Why do people binge watch "Game Of Thrones"? Why do we all love "Succession"? It's just - it's a fantastic story. It resonates with us on a very deep level. There's this concept in medicine, you know, the notion of a placebo. You know, you give someone a pill, and if only the person believes that that pill will cure him, then, you know, it may actually do.

ARABLOUEI: We become the wolf we feed.

BREGMAN: We humans, we become the stories that we tell ourselves. Our stories are never just stories. They are self-fulfilling prophecies.

ARABLOUEI: What happens when the stories we tell ourselves actually impact real-life situations? What can we learn when we look at events where the thin veneer of civilization is removed, during war or natural disasters? How do human beings actually respond to each other when things fall apart? Coming up, we revisit one of the greatest natural disasters in U.S. history and look behind its headlines.


YVETTE ALISON HERMAN: I'm Yvette Alison Herman (ph). I'm in Long Beach, Calif. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 3 - When The Elites Panic.


RAY NAGIN: Every person is hereby ordered to immediately evacuate the city of New Orleans. Or if no other alternative is available...

GARY TUCHMAN: This is not the strongest part of the hurricane yet. And you can see...

MILES O'BRIEN: Completely horizontally. You cannot even look in a northward direction. Visibility is down.

JOHN ROBERTS: Waters from Lake Pontchartrain broke through a levee.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I need someone out here, ma'am. I'm going to die in this attic.

ROBERTS: New Orleans is called the Big Bowl.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We going to die in here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Pray for me, hear.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I'm going to have to pray for everybody, even myself.

SOLNIT: Poor people were left to their own devices in a city that everyone knew was going to flood.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Much of New Orleans is below sea level.

SOLNIT: The levees were going to break.


ROBERTS: When Katrina breached the levees that held the water back, the bowl was swamped.

SOLNIT: It was going to be a disaster.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: People were on their own.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The water started rising in the attic, ma'am.

CARL QUINTANILLA: Sunrise cannot come soon enough.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Phone lines are down.

ED REAMS: Water stopped running.

ROBERTS: Apocalyptic.

REAMS: The sewer system is backed up.

AARON BROWN: It is everything we feared.


SOLNIT: Immediately after that happened, the U.S. media and a lot of government officials, including the then-mayor, the governor of Louisiana, began repeating these disaster myths.

ABDELFATAH: Disaster myths. This is something author Rebecca Solnit talks about in her book "A Paradise Built In Hell," which focuses on how people respond during disasters. She started writing this book shortly after Hurricane Katrina. She wanted to know what really happens when the thin veneer of civilization is gone. Are we really helpless? Are we lawless? Do we need authority to survive? Who are we?


MIKE PERLSTEIN: Police tried to keep the city from descending into complete chaos.

BROWN: A city that is in a virtual state of anarchy tonight.

ANDERSON COOPER: Shots have been fired.

PAUL BOYD: There were reportedly rapes...

ALAN GOULD: Small children being raped and killed...

BOYD: ...And sheer anarchy.

GOULD: ...People running around with guns.

BROWN: Some considerable violence, we are told there.

ABDELFATAH: The news coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was dark. It gave the impression of a total apocalypse.

SOLNIT: They sent refrigerator trucks to the Superdome, the sports arena in which a lot of people took shelter, because they decided there were 200 corpses in there because they decided there had been some kind of mass murder rampage.


LESLIE GRIFFITH: Thousands of evacuees sought refuge in that shelter of last resort, only to be subjected to an unspeakable breakdown of law and order.

SOLNIT: Money no longer existed. Banks were not open. Credit cards didn't work. ATM machines didn't work. There were no storekeepers, with a few exceptions. And so people were going, like, into pharmacies to get diapers and medicine. People were going into stores to get food and water, people who'd swam through toxic things and became part of portraying the stranded victims as monsters who needed to be controlled. Except they had an extra layer of racial bias.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Quickly, news reports were saturated with a lasting image of Katrina, the looter.

NATALIE MORALES: Looters are running free.

PERLSTEIN: Mass looting.

QUINTANILLA: Looting has long been...

COOPER: Looting in New Orleans.

ROBERTS: Looters free-for-all.

QUINTANILLA: Three gentlemen just climbed into the broken window of this mini-mart here.

KANYE WEST: We see a Black family. It says they're looting. You see a white family. It says they're looking for food.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: They represent a frightening breakdown of law and order.

ABDELFATAH: The news about the violence and the looting was greatly exaggerated at the highest levels, including by the city's mayor and police chief.


MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Most of the horrific violence at the Superdome, the reports of dozens of murders and rapes, was actually a myth.

ABDELFATAH: Many of the stories of brutality at the Superdome were debunked. Instead, what was happening was thousands of people waiting days to be evacuated with limited food, water and medical supplies.


ARABLOUEI: The truth is there was violence that was happening during Katrina's aftermath, but it wasn't being committed by the people being blamed by the elites.


SCOTT PELLEY: In New Orleans today, a federal jury convicted five current and former police officers in the shooting deaths of unarmed civilians six days after Hurricane Katrina.

SOLNIT: There had been a lot of violence by the police, by white supremacists.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: If you had to shoot somebody, you had to shoot somebody.

SOLNIT: Who were the monsters? It was people who thought they were somehow divinely ordained, a la Hobbes, to govern over the rest of us.

ARABLOUEI: Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, the Leviathan. Remember him?


KATHLEEN BLANCO: I have one message for these hoodlums.

SOLNIT: They were the governor who said that she had troops and they were locked and loaded.


BLANCO: These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.

SOLNIT: The mayor who fell apart.


WOLF BLITZER: Nagin had taken bribes worth half a million dollars, both before Katrina and after Katrina.

SOLNIT: The Bush-era FEMA also failed profoundly.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Five days after Katrina hit, much-needed federal assistance had yet to reach New Orleans.

ARABLOUEI: Bad collaboration between the federal and local governments meant that rescues were delayed. And even the basics, like food and water or medical supplies, were running short.

SOLNIT: So many people who were exactly those people who were supposed to be the damn-thin veneer turned out to be the wild dogs, the callous people.


BREGMAN: It's the elites who are supposed to help. They're the ones who panic.


BREGMAN: It's the elites who are watching the situation unfold from a distance, you know, from behind their screens. They've got their theory of human nature. They're big believers, often, in veneer theory. So they get very worried.

SOLNIT: Elites decide the rest of us are going to behave badly, which justifies their own violence, their own power grabs, their own selfishness.

ARABLOUEI: Rebecca Solnit says while the elites panicked, the people on the ground in New Orleans, most of whom were Black, actually did the opposite.

SOLNIT: What I focused on was the pro-social stuff, the incredible things people did to rescue and take care of each other, the incredible way people, within hours, didn't become marauding hordes but became spontaneous communities of mutual aid and care.


MALIK RAHIM: At first, it was - I'm just helping me and mines (ph), you dig?

ABDELFATAH: This is Malik Rahim. Rebecca interviewed him for her book. And so we reached out, too.

RAHIM: And I'm from New Orleans, a community called Algiers, La.

ABDELFATAH: Algiers Point, where Malik lives, is a neighborhood in New Orleans that became infamous for white vigilantes that would patrol the streets during Katrina, claiming to shoot looters.

RAHIM: One of my neighbors came by my house crying. I said, man, what's wrong with you? He told me, he said, man, listen. They was about to kill me around the corner. I said, what? He was telling me to run.

ABDELFATAH: An investigation by reporters found that at least 11 Black men were shot in the days following the hurricane. A ProPublica report says, quote, "the shooters, it appears, were all white."

RAHIM: New Orleans was on the verge of a racial war, and a racial war that as a Black, I knew we couldn't win.

ARABLOUEI: Malik remained in his house after the storm, and he had help from a friend to stay safe. They'd stand guard on Malik's front porch watching all this desperation, this violence from white supremacists, this lack of action from the government, unfold. And they got to talking about social movements.

RAHIM: We was - discussed why so many social movements start off with such vigor and end in such despair, you know. Reason is because they lost what they had in common, that common ground that brought them together.


ABDELFATAH: Common Ground - that's the collective Malik and his friends started after those conversations at his house. They stepped in to fill the needs of the community, needs that were not met by the government. They worked in a city where tens of thousands were stranded without an evacuation plan, with no running water or electricity. In the face of immense difficulty, they banded together and built.


RAHIM: People had lost hope. And that's where Common Ground came down and done. We restored hope by teaching civic responsibility.

ARABLOUEI: Common Ground started by providing rescues and basic aid to anyone they could. They created health clinics, shelters, mobile street medics, a whole network of mutual aid made up of all kinds of volunteers, the kind of mutual aid that Malik helped make popular as a Black Panther, the kind of mutual aid that has existed in Black communities for generations before Katrina, the kind we saw during the pandemic or with the 2021 Texas storm that left millions without power or clean water or the recent storms in Buffalo, N.Y. Common Ground would end up helping thousands of people. Malik says this includes some of those white vigilantes.

RAHIM: I seen one of those vigilantes had to bring his mother to our health clinic. And our health clinic went from being the Panther clinic to a hippie clinic to just the clinic.

ABDELFATAH: Malik and his colleagues in Common Ground didn't turn anyone away. It wasn't us against them, and chaos didn't have to reign.

RAHIM: When you start exposing those myths, then people start coming together. And when they start coming together, then they start sharing and understand that the only way we're going to survive this is if we do it together.

ABDELFATAH: Malik says Common Ground started with just a few people, then grew to dozens within a week, then to thousands.

RAHIM: Is nothing more noble than saving life as we know it.

ABDELFATAH: Malik and Rebecca both talk about how disasters like Hurricane Katrina are a window into what really happens when the thin veneer goes away. It's a window into what is possible when humanity is put to the test.

RAHIM: We're going to always be hit with disasters, but a disaster don't mean that it have to destroy hope. Without hope, this world will never be a better place.

SOLNIT: What was amazing for me is over and over and over again, this extraordinary joy shone out of people's faces, came out of their accounts because they'd found something that's missing in the disaster of everyday life. When everyday life is alienating, is meaningless, is commodified, is fragmented, they'd found a deep sense of immediacy, of social connection, of purposefulness. That's something I think we crave all the time.

BREGMAN: We've got hundreds and hundreds of studies done by sociologists and anthropologists since the 1960s, and time and time again, they've shown that actually, what you get in a crisis situation is an explosion of altruism. So people start helping each other on a massive scale.

SOLNIT: It's not all about the war of each against each, about the selfish gene and the struggle for survival. In so many ways, at so many levels throughout evolution, throughout life on earth, you see collaboration, cooperation, often even between species as well as within species. And we know that's what it takes to survive.


ARABLOUEI: Today, it's really easy to believe that we live on a thin veneer of society. We're constantly being bombarded by bad news, by an onslaught of apocalyptic foreshadowing. It's become trendy to joke about the coming end of the world. And of course, this isn't completely unfounded. Climate change is an existential threat. There's misinformation, runaway capitalism. But really, who does it serve when we're all swimming in this toxic soup of pessimism, hopelessness and despair? Which wolf in us does it feed? Is this way of thinking going to make things better or paralyze us and keep things just the way they are?


BREGMAN: I've always believed in the power of utopian thinking. Every milestone of civilization - the end of slavery, democracy, equal rights for men and women - these were all utopian fantasies once until they happened. That's why I think that history is actually the most subversive discipline of all the social sciences, because history shows us that things can be different. They don't have to be this way. We can change them. We have to believe in the power of hope. If you believe in hope, if you're actually hopeful for the future, then you know you got to do something.

ARABLOUEI: I grew up in the 1990s, an era where popular culture promoted indifference. It was hip to not care. It was a way of showing everyone that you see people clearly for what they are - bad. But what if that was wrong? What if seeing the world for what it is means being optimistic about humanity? What if optimism is actually what's punk rock?


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me...

ARABLOUEI: ...And me, and...










ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Neil Strickland, J.C. Howard and Laurent Lassabliere for their voiceover work.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Micah Ratner, Rachel Seller, Taylor Ash, Tamar Charney and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was mixed by Josh Newell and Robert Rodriguez. Music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: A quick note for the episode - we did reach out to Professor Philip Zimbardo to talk about the Stanford prison experiment, but he said he was unable to do the interview.

ABDELFATAH: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at throughine@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter @ThroughlineNPR.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening.

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