On this date – January 21 – in 1793, Louis XVI is executed by guillotine.
There had been executions during the French Revolution prior to Louis’s execution, but from the moment his kingly head left the royal body, rolling off the guillotine – only to be snatched up by a teen-aged executioner’s assistant and brandished for the crowd, which roared approval and dipped their handkerchiefs in Louis’s blood – it was game on in the Reign of Terror.
When the Reign of Terror was over – a year and a half later –16,595 French had died by guillotine and another 25,000 had been executed by other means. Among the dead were Saint Just and Robespierre – principal architects of The Terror – along with Marie Antoinette and tens of thousands of ordinary Frenchmen and Frenchwomen. That’s a lot of carnage in a nation with a population then of about twice the size of Los Angeles County now. Carnage carried out in the service of Belief.
When I read of something horrible happening – the latest ISIS outrage or the tragic Charlie Hebdo killings of a year ago, the Harrods bombing or the Munich Olympic massacre in more distant times – I feel anger and sorrow, of course, but I don’t find what happened “inexplicable” and I’m never especially surprised. I guess that’s because I know history. Human history. I think of the French Revolution or – closer to home – the behavior of small-town crowds at lynchings, crowds that were composed of my fellow Americans who worked and played and raised families during the time when my grandparents were alive. Crowds composed of one group of people who Believed a second barely-distinguishable-from-them group of people were Other, less than them, people to be feared.
And, while devoutly wishing that the perpetrators of the latest forms of Terror be caught and punished, I try not to demonize them. The way, for instance, that those perpetrators demonized their victims. It’s hard, but I try.
How sad, I think, that we humans still do these things. And still in the service of Belief.