Civilized Man?

The barrier between civilized man, living in peaceful coexistence with others, and animalistic man, exhibiting the most base and brutal of instincts, is far thinner than we think.

We see ourselves as cultured and caring. We act kindly toward those who are less fortunate or different. Charities abound. Political Correctness and sensitivity are woven into our nation’s fabric. We don’t hurt feelings. We build self-esteem. We help the poor. We champion minorities of nationality, disabilities, color and non-traditional personal preferences. These are signs of an advanced civilization seeking to avoid conflict.

But when we watch the news or read the papers we see highlights of a far different world. We see a world that frays at its edges and rips at the seams. We see deceit and infidelity, fraud and extortion, atrocities and murder. Usually, these tragedies happen to someone else. Murders occur in the inner cities, in places where few of us dwell and fewer would dare roam at night. Young men and women we rarely know go off to win and preserve our freedom—and lose their limbs and sacrifice their lives.

But more and more of us are feeling the sting of these base “human” instincts. We see smut coming in through our email and pedophiles prowling our children’s chat rooms. We see date rape, credit card fraud and stolen cars. The list goes on. And on.

Is it my imagination, or are things getting worse?

In my writing, characters often have to deal with the consequences of civilization run amok. Recently, I had to face this myself—in spades.

Twenty years ago, after “retiring” from the financial services industry, I answered a help-wanted ad in the newspaper. The job was for a sales and marketing coordinator to represent a large, highly exclusive real estate development in southern California. This was an exceptional job, with a substantial salary and enormous commission/bonus opportunities. Only people who had earned six-figure incomes in the past (That was a lot of money in 1986.) were considered for the position. Two people were chosen, me and Roger Angleton.

I was a neophyte in the real estate business. Roger was a seasoned pro, who had run a highly successful REMAX operation in Houston, Texas. Roger took me under his wing. He and I walked every inch of the 2,500 virgin acres of California wilderness. We priced each lot individually. We found builders to buy the lots and construct the multi-million dollar homes for us to sell. We developed a broker referral network across California and beyond. For six months we worked side by side, all day every day.

Roger was the kind of person that would light up a room when he entered. He had a personality as big as Texas, and was always quick with a joke or a compliment. He was fun.

Roger and I didn’t socialize much outside of work. He was married, and lived thirty miles away from me. But during the days, business joined us at the hip. And work was fun.

The large Savings and Loan institution that owned our real estate project ran into financial difficulties. They went bankrupt, even though we were doing a spectacular business. The firm was one of the first major casualties of the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s.

While we were waiting to see what happened to our project, I decided to start a novel. One weekend I spent both days writing, and came up with one single page of drivel. On Monday I read it to Roger. Roger, in his uniquely enthusiastic way, told me to go for it. It was the “best he’d ever read”.

The project soon closed. We parted ways, and I never heard from Roger again. I went on to enjoy a wonderful and fulfilling family life. I created another investment firm and build the first open-architecture 401(k) program. I lived the American dream. Roger went on to kill his brother’s wife. Then he killed himself (or was murdered) while in prison.

When I was editing The Alchemist Conspiracy I had visions of finding Roger and showing him the book. He was there for my very first words (of a different book, however). It would have been fun to share this one with him. I even included his name and parts of his personality as one of the characters in my book.

I was blown away this spring when I turned on CBS’s 48 Hours and saw Roger being profiled for murder. His brother was (reportedly) the biggest bookie in Texas. It is alleged that Roger’s brother hired him to kill his (brother’s) wife to prevent a nasty divorce. Roger even had secret recordings of the hire. Roger committed the crime and fled to Las Vegas. He was picked up by the police, with a cassette of him (and his brother) planning the murder. Roger went to jail and refused a deal to finger his brother. But he went to work on a tell-all book, and met regularly with a writer. Then, one day, Roger turned up dead in his cell, leaving a suicide note “exonerating” his brother. Roger’s brother later fled the country, and is still at large in the Netherlands.

I cannot get over how deeply this has troubled me. The Roger I knew was a successful family man. He was making great money. He had a happy marriage. He was always fun and the life of the party. Somewhere along the way, he fell into a sordid world of illegal gambling, drugs, murder and suicide.

I would never have envisioned this for Roger. And it illustrates for me the fine, thin barrier between our civil nature and our most basic, brutal potential. I think of the saying “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

How much does it take to cause the schism, to create the fracture that moves man to such behavior? To cause such a wanton disregard for life? I suspect that it is far less than we think. I remember Lord of the Flies, and how schoolboys turned into monsters. I see “reality” shows where the contestants end up at each other’s throats. I see wars where people gladly strap themselves with explosives, walk into a crowd and vanish into pieces.

I think of the millions of American men and women who serve our nation in the four military branches, the National Guard, the FBI, CIA, DEA, the police and the border patrol. Many of these dedicated individuals must interact daily with the underbelly of society, with its open sores and wheezing coughs. So often their service goes unnoticed and underappreciated.

I think of our soldiers in foreign lands. These brave men and women have volunteered to put their lives on the line. They spill their blood to keep us free. What a selfless, glorious commitment that is.

The choice to fight a war is a difficult one to make. Laypeople know just a small fraction of the information one would need to make an informed decision regarding the necessity for conflict outside of our nation. I cannot presume to know what I would do were I in the president’s shoes. I can only help elect men and women who I feel would evaluate that information in the same way as I would.

I do know that many of our soldiers must live their lives in an environment that is filled with stresses beyond our imagination. If our civilized society can make someone like a happy-go-lucky Roger Angleton crack, then our soldiers and law-enforcement officers deserve a huge benefit of any doubt.

Our soldiers must often live with the knowledge that any moment could be their last. Their friends die at the hands of people they thought they were protecting. They are sent into battle with equipment they know could be safer. They must deal with self-doubts, brought out by experiences no man should be forced to endure, emotions and urges long-since tamed by society, but needed in the raw brutal world they must now live.

In my writing I grasp for these essential parts of the human condition, and seek to understand the true building blocks of man and nature. I try to get behind the façade we construct, where life is bucolic and worry-free. I try to stretch my understanding of the true nature of our being. And I try to covey it in words.

I am glad that I live in a world that doesn’t force me to approach my breaking point. And I hope I never do.

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