Terror in the Present and the Past


World got you down, bunkie?

There's good reason. Terror and unrest seem to abound. Brexit threatens to isolate the U.K., casting it back to the 1950s. Donald Trump wants America to return to that time as well, with his nativism and clearly racist comments. And then there is Orlando--the slaughter of 49 innocent souls, most in the prime of their lives, murdered by a deranged man who had as much to do with ISIS as Lee Harvey Oswald had to do with Communists. Don't get that connection? You need to learn your history.

History isn't very popular these days. More's the pity because, as they say, "Those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it." A shocking number of Americans can't even tell you who won the American Civil War.

Oswald, of course, assassinated President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. I'm old enough to remember that event and the terrible days that followed as Oswald, too, was murdered literally before our very eyes on live TV.

In the months that followed the U.S. tried to come to terms with the fact that a lone gunman could inflict so much pain and damage. It was rather quickly revealed that Oswald had flirted with becoming a communist in the late 1950s and so many Americans felt he must be part of a Communist conspiracy to kill Kennedy. But Oswald's Communism link was tenuous, at best, just as Omar Mateen's link to ISIS seems, in some ways, designed to bring more attention to him and his horrific deed rather than a true allegiance to that monstrous group. It seems that both young men (Oswald was just 24, Mateen 29) were mentally deranged from the moment they entered this world and spent their youth learning to lie and bully, flitting from ideology to ideology, looking for a platform to launch their anger upon the world. Both expressed desires to "be remembered." Inconsequential souls seeking immortality. Which brings us to Hitler.

If you want to see the penultimate example of what a terrorist is capable of then you must come back to Hitler. He is the gold standard of terrorists; a one time watercolor artist who went on to become synonymous with evil, an inconsequential soul who achieved immortality. It has become too easy to brand someone "Hitler-esque." Trump, with his fascistic leanings, is sometimes branded a "Hitler." But let's consider what that brand entails.

Hitler was responsible for the murder of 61 million people over six years of time. It was called World War II and it was more horrific than anything before or after. The U.S. was involved in the War, of course, but our fatalities -- 295,000 soldiers, 0 civilians -- pale compared to those of Russia -- 8.6 million soldiers, 16 million civilians! Great Britain lost 326,000 soldiers, 62,000 civilians. In France alone 470,000 civilians died! That is 214 civilians a day, every day, for six years! Compare that with 130 lives lost in Paris on November 13, 2015. I don't mean to diminish that awful, recent terror act in the City of Light (or any terror act for that matter) but studying history gives us a means to see where the true threats lie and that terror has been with us from the earliest recorded time.

A complete listing of WWII fatalities by country can be found at the Second World War site which will give you an opportunity to read all about Adolph Hitler as well as other figures from that time. What's that you say? You don't like to read history? Well, you can turn on Netflix and find some fascinating documentaries that will teach you all about WWII and Mr. Hitler. I did that recently and can recommend Apocalypse: The Second World War and Hitler and the Nazis.

Too depressing, you say? Well, isn't that the point? There is a lot of grumbling about how depressing it is now and it certainly has its moments. But our failure to embrace history has led us to embrace the present too fervently and that, my friends, can have dire consequences. Adam Gopnik, writing in the August 28, 2014 The New Yorker, explains when he writes that an absence of historical sense:

[E]ncourages ... presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been--and, thus, than they really are--or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult. Every episode becomes an epidemic, every image is turned into a permanent injury, and each crisis is a historical crisis in need of urgent aggressive handling--even if all experience shows that aggressive handling of such situations has in the past, quite often made things worse.

Learning history will not solve the world's problems and despair is an appropriate response to recent events but it must be a temporary response. We must place our own time in context with others because that is how we advance, that is how things get better. There will always be terror that darkens our days but there is always light and nothing casts a brighter light than knowledge.