Decaying corpses were stacked all over the burial ground and the streets were littered with the dead. When trains arrived at railroad stations, they had to be cleared of the dead and dying passengers. Five million people died in the nation of India! In the U.S., about 500,000 people died! The killer was Spanish influenza of 1918-19.
From the dawn of history, mankind has experienced times of sickness, sorrow, and suffering. Disease was often deadly and left as quickly and mysteriously as it appeared. Sometime, it stayed for months. Now, we face a more deadly possibility: modern terrorists with the ability, equipment, funds, and commitment to wreak destruction, disease, and death on a massive scale.
Throughout history people often reacted out of fear and ignorance, and that only compounded the problem, extending the pestilence. They ran from the towns, but found that when they arrived in a “safe haven” they were met by the same pestilence! Of course, the pestilence had been a traveling companion. Hopefully, I will provide some insight as to the mistakes made in the past so they will not be repeated in the future.
Our present threat could come from a nuclear blast, an EMP device, poisoned water or food supply, an ancient (or modern) exotic plague, or biological agents sprayed over a metropolitan area. Federal authorities declare that terror is in our near future and will be far worse than the September 11 attacks.
In the plague of A.D. 302, the pestilence had a companion–famine. The people resorted to eating grass, and the deaths from famine almost matched those dying from disease. Hungry dogs fought over the bodies of the human dead. Hieronymus tells us that the human race had been “all but destroyed,” and that the earth was returning to a state of desert and forests.
The first instance of a true pandemic (worldwide epidemic) began in A.D. 542 at Pelusium, Egypt during the reign of Emperor Justinian. In sixty years it spread to all parts of the known world. Seibel tells us that the plague was preceded by many earthquakes, volcanic eruptions–Vesuvius, in 513, was one–and famines that dropped a blanket of terror and death over Europe, the Near East, and Asia. The worst natural occurrence was the earthquake and fire that destroyed Antioch in A.D. 526, killing almost 300,000 people.
When the plague arrived in Constantinople in A.D. 542, it stayed for four months killing so many people that it was impossible for the living to bury the dead. The dead lay unburied in the streets with ten thousand persons dying each day at Constantinople. By A.D. 565, half of the citizens of the Byzantine Empire had died! Gibbon suggested that perhaps 100 million people (in Europe alone) died of this plague!
In the early 1300s, the population of Europe had outrun the food supply, and in a few years, the poor were eating cats, dogs, and other animals. Some say they even ate their own children! People were dying, but rather slowly. Bubonic plague (Black Death) would prove to be more efficient and quicker than famine, much quicker.
The poet Petrarch reported about the effects of the plague on Florence: “We go out of doors, walk through street after street and find them full of dead and dying, and when we get home again we find no live thing within the house! All having perished in the brief interval of our absence.”
George Astor wrote that, “Almost half of Europe died from the black death between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries.”
The preceding litany of deaths could be a portent of what the world faces if Muslim terrorists carry out their threats. No sane person thinks they are playing games. It is not demagoguery to suggest that the earth could become a mass graveyard.
When the daily count of the dead reached the breaking point (different in various societies and ages), responsible people became irresponsible, calm people became terrified, and the borderline paranoid became dangerous. As people fled their homes, social and political organizations disappeared, crops were left to rot in the fields, populations were displaced, civil war was fomented, and major shifts in religious thinking occurred.
Many historians have taught that disease has changed the condition of this world more than wars. Ancient Greece might not have fallen into the hands of Rome if it had not been for malaria. Are we not fools if we don’t consider the same or similar results from possible biological terrorism we face today? If we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.
Maybe we can learn from the plague of Saint Cyprian and not make the same mistakes people of that day made. In A.D. 250, the Roman Empire was in turbulence. The Goths had just won a major victory and the barbarians were at the gates of Rome. Then the plague of Saint Cyprian lashed the empire for fifteen years. There were problems in the palace and bickering on the battlefields. The soldiers were often unpaid because the pestilence sapped the wealth and the cash flow slowed. Rebellious soldiers broke rank and fled into the forests, and took what they wanted from those trying to eke out an existence from the land. Military insurrections, civil disorders, and civil wars became common, and the empire continued to crack along its foundations.
Zinsser, among others, believes that the Plague of Justinian (A.D. 541) was partly responsible for the demise of the Roman Empire. He wrote that the plague was “perhaps the most potent single influence–-which gave the coup de grâce to the ancient empire.”
The plague of Justinian finally ended about 590, but by that time most of Italy was controlled by the Lombards. The barbarians were no longer at the gates of Rome but inside the gates. The mighty Empire had crumbled, and when the Muslim armies swarmed out of Arabia in 634, the Roman and Persian forces gave only token resistance.
An indication of the extent of national trouble during times of disease, destruction, and death can be seen in desperate laws passed during Diocletian’s reign (ruled 285-305). Farmers were forbidden to leave the farms to take up other jobs and some occupations were made hereditary. Would Americans support such laws under similar circumstances? We have been told that terrorism justifies unconstitutional laws!
The Black Death raged throughout Europe in the fourteenth century, wiping out from two-thirds to three-fourths of the population! This loss of population impacted the work force, but at first, only the more skilled positions. However, when the second and third wave of pestilence swept across Europe, every job was affected. Farmers, servants, tinkers, and others were in short supply. J.L. Cloudsley-Thompson wrote that, “some 50,000 persons died in London alone, so that all public business was interrupted for two years” and the war with France had to be discontinued.
During this time, inflation skyrocketed. Goods became difficult to obtain and very expensive because so many people had died. Gary North wrote that “overnight in Pistoia [Italy], rents fell from up to half of the harvest to about five percent. So did interest rates. Wages shot upward. All over Europe governments passed wage controls. They made it illegal for people to move to new parishes. And all over Europe this legislation failed.”
In times of terror free people must be careful that we do not forget what made us a great nation, forgetting principles of justice, kindness, generosity, innovation, etc., and become what we detest in the terrorists!
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.