Frightening Times

The Republican presidential debate made Americans even more scared. Liberal partisans to think that one of those nine may actually become President of the United States. And all viewers witness to an endless barrage of rhetoric about the threat we're facing and how each, in turn, would obliterate those so threatening our country.

Even before the debate, Americans were frightened as can be, more than at any time since 9/11. House Speaker Paul Ryan captured how "there is this real, palpable anxiety in the country...and then you turn on the TV and you see ISIS, you see San Bernardino, and you see all these security threats, and it's like the world is on fire."

Except that it's not. At least, not for Americans.

Since 9/11, a total of forty-five Americans have been killed by Islamist terrorists here at home. Over these fourteen years, that's roughly how many die from traffic deaths each fourteen hours. Mass shootings, which strikes us as sickening and then as numbing, killed 462 this year. That's fewer than those who die falling out of bed each year.

Then why is so much fright caused by so few numbers?

Because today's danger is so amorphous. We don't know when terrorism will come, or where it will strike, or just why it comes at all. When a threat is inexplicable, when it can be anywhere at any time, nobody feels safe anywhere at any time.

But just imagine a time when the numbers matched, or even exceeded, the mass fright. When an amorphous dread -- not just death, but prolonged, excruciating death -- struck frequently, extensively, and relentlessly.

That was daily life during much of Shakespeare's life, as James Shapiro tells in The Year of Lear. The plague was then constantly rising and falling, but never disappearing. It was always evident or imminent, but never explained.

In 1603 for instance, with Shakespeare writing like mad, his Globe Theater opened and then closed due to the epidemic. That summer, some 3,000 Londoners died of the plague each week, in a city roughly the size of Des Moines today. By the onset of winter that year, a stunning one-third of that population had succumbed, leaving more than 30,000 dead.

Moreover, death was a relief. Before the end came the torment of the victim's heart racing, mouth parched, black lesions appearing and then rupturing, speech slurring and then impossible, delirium increasing, and screaming unceasing.

The disease came on mysteriously, and suddenly. Two-thirds died within three or four days. The hearty lasted three or four weeks. Once spotting symptoms, victims might kill themselves rather than endure all this.

How the plague progressed was known, but not why. Authorities blamed dogs for carrying the disease, and ordered all dogs in London to be slaughtered (another affliction to the English, who do love their dogs). But that had no effect, since dogs were not carriers. Priests blamed sin, sermonizing to stop sinning in order to stop the plague spreading. But parishioners watched the holy and the wicked alike fall, to humans eyes rather indiscriminately.

Once the disease arose, people knew it was infectious, spread by coughing or breathing. This lead to home and town quarantines, as recounted in Romeo and Juliet. With guards posted outside, those locked inside sometimes starved and sometimes went stark raving mad, from both the isolation and from watching their loved ones suffer so.

But why the disease arose was unknown. Only centuries later was it discovered that rats, not dogs, carried the fleas. Only then was the deadly bacteria, Yersinia pestis, clearly identified.

Meanwhile, all of life revolved around this mysterious, omnipresent danger -- who you met, where you went, what you planned or did. It was truly dreadful, life filled with true dread.

As bad as the plague was in Shakespeare's day, it had been even worse. In the mid-Fourteenth Century, the plague practically wiped out Europe. It's estimated that between 75 and 200 million people were afflicted. In the 1340's and 1350's, the number of Parisians dropped by more than a third. Other French towns became ghost towns, 100 percent of the population having perished. The disease hit more than 90 percent of those living in Florence.

Imagine a third or more of Europeans suffering and dying for unknown reasons. Imagine a drop in world population by some 100 million people, a number not replenished on the continent for three centuries.

Pundits are constantly touting lessons of history. Actually such "lessons" usually reinforce the views, or prejudices, of those deriving flabby lessons from hard facts of history.

While there may be no true lessons of history, there is consolation in history. Today's pervading sense that "the world is on fire" is somewhat tempered when looking back on times when the world really was on fire.