Is Life in America More Insane Than a War Zone?

Today I saw a picture of the main boulevard in Misurata and I couldn't help but think how much it looked like another such thoroughfare -- Sniper Alley in Sarajevo. I have been in that movie, I thought. Sigh.

I have never been to Libya, but I lived in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo during the tumultuous, war-ravaged years of the 1990s. I imagine that the people of Misurata and other Libyan cities under assault are in the midst of a profoundly challenging psychological crisis. One day they were teachers, doctors, plumbers and students. Today they are warriors, whether or not they are positioned on the front lines.

One of the most unexpected challenges of living in a war zone is adapting to the collapse of public services and local government. In Sarajevo we did not have heat, water, electricity, a postal system, banks, garbage collection, functioning traffic lights, public transportation or (thankfully) parking tickets. And although the city is up in the mountains where snow is plentiful, I never saw a snow shovel, plow, salt truck or bag of sand. (Of course I lived at the top of a very steep hill.)

Trying to work around so much hardship was mentally and logistically exhausting, not to mention dangerous. One of my best friends even had a small gas canister blow up in her face when she tried cooking something for dinner.

But somehow there was order among the chaos. Our collective sanity depended on collective goodwill; on lending a helping hand and doing the right thing. We paid in cash and burned our garbage out in the street, block-by-block. Passersby helped you free your car from the clutches of snow drifts. We did not park in front of driveways.

We were all in this together.

Indeed, war is a great equalizer. You all suffer (more or less) equally. Whether or not you had water had nothing to do with your socioeconomic status or your level of education. It was simply a matter of whether you were lucky enough to live by the hospital, on the one water line anyone cared to maintain.

War is also a study in the starkest of contrasts. It is both humanity at its worst and humanity at its most courageous and awe-inspiring. As you might expect, there are snipers and rapists, weapons of death, warlords and executioners. And then there are people rushing strangers to the hospital at their own peril. Offering guests a cup of coffee with their last teaspoon of sugar. Gathering at bars and cafes a short distance from the snipers' nests to drink and talk and tell jokes (and smoke) as it if was just another day in paradise. There is nothing quite like the camaraderie inherent in suffering.

It was madness, of course, but I can't help thinking that in some ways our lives in America are even more insane. We seem to be increasingly less capable of doing the right thing for its own sake. So we pass more laws, install more cameras and issue more tickets. One of the most powerful lessons of war is that you cannot regulate your way to decency. It is a choice that lives in all of us.

It is surprising how stubborn the memories of war can be. It has been 12 years since the wars ended in the former Yugoslavia and not a day goes by that I do not think of what happened there. Sometimes it seems like hardly an hour has passed.

I imagine they don't have snow in Misurata. Still, the road ahead is likely to be every bit as treacherous as the frozen one leading to my old apartment, perched high atop a hill above Sniper Alley.