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by William H. Benson

July 28, 2016

     The Scottish writer and thinker Thomas Carlyle planned to write a massive three-volume history of the French Revolution. He drafted the first volume and then asked his friend John Stuart Mill to review it. Mill’s housekeeper mistook Carlyle’s pages for trash and pitched them into the fire. About that housekeeper, one can say, “She, or he, cleaned too well.”

     One can imagine the ugly emotions that surged within Carlyle felt after Mill told him that his draft was gone, destroyed, burnt up: horror, disappointment, outrage, panic, even terror. The unthinkable had happened. Carlyle though was made of sterner stuff. He shelved those emotions long enough to write his second and third volumes first before he tackled, for a second time, his destroyed first volume.

     Once completed, in 1837, Thomas Carlyle published The French Revolution, and in it he sketched scenes of people caught up in the revolution’s unfolding and unpredictable events. One reviewer said that Carlyle “paints a grim description of the complete and utter chaos of the time.”

     His readers feel the same exhilaration that the French people felt when people stormed the Bastille, the royal fortress and prison in Paris, on July 14, 1789. Here, they believed, was a chance for a new political order. Carlyle then describes the “daze and trance that the Terror’s victims felt,” as one by one they were led to the guillotine, including the king, Louis XVI, and his queen, Marie Antoinette, in 1793, as well as the Great Terror’s architect, Robespierre, the following year.

     Terror comes in at least two forms: by human design, and by nature.

     At 5:41 p.m., on Sunday afternoon on May 22, 2011, a tornado touched down on Joplin, Missouri’s  west edge and then marched east for six miles, cutting a swath of havoc and destruction through the heart of the city. The tornado’s horrific winds approached speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, and that Sunday afternoon 160 people died.

     Working at a Fastrip gas station and convenience store that day was Ruben Carter, a recent college graduate. As the storm worsened, Ruben took command and ordered all those inside the store to assemble in the beer cooler. “Women and children first,” he shouted above the storm’s roar.

     A reporter said, “Some of the people in the cooler are screaming, and some are crying, and some are completely quiet. And then the tornado, and not just the storm preceding it, crests the hill, and hits them with its full force. It is a terrible sound. As Ruben pulls the cooler’s door shut, he sees the entire front of his store, now that it’s been unmoored, suddenly shoot skyward, like a rocket.”

     The tornado destroyed the gas station that day, leaving in its wake a pile of jagged rubble, but twenty-three people crawled out of that beer cooler and stared in amazement at the destruction outside. They were the lucky ones. They survived. Others elsewhere in Joplin had also hid in coolers, but Carter said, “it had not worked out so well for them.”

     Terror. It hits people hard. A pounding in the chest. A shortness of breath. A realization dawns that this too “may not work out so well for us.”

     In the 1940’s, the Nazi’s marched millions toward the gas chambers, the most outrageous and appalling fact of human conduct in recorded history. On 9-11, thousands inside the twin towers, the Pentagon, and on the four aircraft felt sheer and absolute terror, in an instant. Did any of those victims dare to believe that it would work out well for them?

     Today, news and terror are linked arm-in-arm. To read the news is to read terror, whether in America or in Europe or in the Middle East. In the United States, another school shooting causes consternation and bewilderment. On our city’s streets, we hear and see policemen brawling with young men, and their battles, like the wild west, end in gun shots that kill and wound each other.

     In Europe, the citizens of Paris, Brussels, Nice, and now Munich, just this last week, have felt the emotional impact of a terrorist’s rampage. Mohammed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a truck into a crowd at Nice, France, on July 14, Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, while people watched the fireworks. His handiwork ended 84 innocent people’s lives. 

    And after the storm passes, and after the rampage ends, then what? Well then, at that point peace breaks out. The sun shines. Normal life returns. The living bury the dead and rebuild their homes. They write a second time their destroyed manuscripts. Human beings possess this astonishing capacity to rebuild that which others or nature have destroyed.

     A historian once asked, “What are the long-term consequences of the French Revolution?” Another historian provided a flippant answer, “It is too soon to tell.” Today we ask ourselves, “What are the long-term consequences of these series of violent and random terrorist rampages?” We answer, “It is way too soon to tell.”