One of the more searing Twilight Zone episodes begins with a birthday party. Dr. Bill Stockton is being honored by his neighbors who appear to be quite fond of him and of each other. One of the neighbors gives a little speech, gently poking fun at the doctor for the noise he made while building a bomb shelter in his basement. Everyone laughs at the doctor’s endearing eccentricity in constructing such a thing – until a warning comes over the radio. Unidentified objects have been spotted heading in fast. They might be Russian planes armed with nuclear weaponry. Chaos ensues as each neighbor flees to prepare for the impending attack. The boundaries of civility disintegrate as the neighbors return to demand entry into the shelter. The fact that it can only hold three – the doctor, his wife, and his son – doesn’t matter. The stampede of former partiers breaks up the doctor’s dining room. They turn against each other in ugly ways. One neighbor calls another a “semi-American” for being Hispanic. He punctuates his point with a sock to the jaw. Just as the madness reaches a frightening crescendo, the radio announces that the incoming objects are only birds. Embarrassed by their descent into barbarism, the neighbors try to climb out of the abyss by discussing ways of repairing the damage. Almost stumbling up the stairs, Dr. Stockton turns around with a dazed expression, and observes that more destruction has occurred than any bomb could have wrought. Boundaries have been demolished that can’t be rebuilt.
We think we don’t like limits, but we really do. Children become annoyed when their parents impose restrictions. But how would they like it if their parents suddenly stopped caring? Why don’t we enjoy news footage of riot scenes? It’s because we understand too well what the burning store fronts, overturned cars, and battered people signify. The boundaries have been torn down, allowing the less appealing aspects of human nature to run wild.
The fictional experience of Dr. Stockton is regularly mirrored in the real world. Not long ago a man in his thirties left his wife and children behind for an 18-year prison stretch. His offence was an outburst of road rage that had caused an elderly man’s death. One can safely assume that this man will soon learn the art of living within boundaries – in the extreme. And what about the New Jersey woman who has confessed to killing her neighbor’s dog by throwing it into traffic. She broke into the neighbor’s home, grabbed the dog, a 2 year-old Shih Tzu, and heaved it out into the path of an oncoming truck. What could have been the motivation for such an act? Surely it must have been something enormous to drive a person to do something so horrific. Did she believe the dog to be the carrier of a disease capable of killing off the neighborhood? No, it wasn’t anything that urgent. It seems there was an argument over a parking space. Let’s repeat that: there – was – an – argument – over – a – parking – space.
What has happened to us? How have the social norms that held us together for decades, even centuries, fallen apart? Is it the obsession with self? This is the age of the I-phone, the I-pad. We’re awash in I-oriented merchandising. With the exultation of the I is there a tendency to slump into ourselves, to become disinterested in the effects our actions have on others? At the conclusion of his drama about the bomb shelter, Rod Serling uttered an important thought: “For civilization to survive, the human race must remain civilized.” This observation, or as Mr. Serling called it, this “small exercise in logic,” bears a truth that extends far beyond the borders of The Twilight Zone.