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The Best or Worst of Times

With the growth of ISIS, the recent Paris attacks, the threats to the American homeland, not to mention the racial unrest at home, plus practically everything else since September 11th, one could easily believe that the world has suddenly plunged into unprecedented chaos and violence.

That’s a reasonable presumption. However, while these may not be comforting times, they may not be the worst either.

It’s easy to forget that our ancestors, while living in smaller cities and countries, experienced their own problems, but history’s comparisons might be a bit awkward for those who believe that our modern issues are paramount, urgent or unprecedented.

Take war. The U.S. has been in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Total battle deaths so far are about 6,717. Granting that a single casualty, dead, wounded or missing, is someone’s tragedy, numbers cannot be ignored. The U.S. population is about 330 million and can absorb these overseas combats.

But what about history? Let’s take the Civil War for example. In 1861, the U.S. had a white population of 31 million. The Civil War ended four years later and took 750,000 of those lives, almost all white soldiers. That is approximately 2.5 percent of their population. If similar percentages were absorbed today, we would have lost about eight million soldiers. How would those numbers fit into MSNBC? 

Closer to “modern” times, consider World War II. In 1940, the world had about 2.3 billion people; compared with today’s give or take 7 billion. The war lasted exactly six years and a day. Within that span, total fatalities, all theaters, combat, disease, men, women and children, totaled approximately 76 million (consensus). That’s about 35,000 killed every day for the duration! If these percentages were suffered in today’s world, we would have witnessed around 100,000 dead bodies every day since 2009. We may not know it, but our generation, with all its violence, has actually been “spared” what our fathers and grandfathers knew. (And their memories will soon be gone; about 800 veterans of that war die each day.)

None of this should minimize the individual, with each life sacred and unique, but perspective is an intellectual necessity. The American people rightly remember Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as profound historical landmarks, or, as FDR put it, “infamy.” At Pearl Harbor, the country lost 2,403, mostly sailors; on 9/11 the toll was 2,977, most but not all Americans. These were heavy tolls, with each event over in minutes or hours. Pearl Harbor led to U.S. entry in the Second World War and 407,000 more battle deaths; 9/11 has not (yet) been repeated. These were national tragedies but certainly not unprecedented.

Take the Battle of Britain. Formally it went on from July 10 to October 31, 1940 — that’s 57 consecutive days (and sometimes nights) in which as many as 800 German planes pounded London and other cities each day. Total fatalities, almost all civilian, were 40,000, half in London. In U.S. terms, that would be 57 straight “9/11’s.” What would the country do?

But the “Blitz,” as it was called, actually continued until June 1941 when Hitler gave up any idea of invading Britain and attacked the Soviet Union. Yet, compare Britain, with 45 million people, absorbing nearly a year of continuous terror from the skies, ending the raids and then fighting the Axis for five more years on all fronts.

One wonders how these people went on, especially considering that they had just finished four years of World War I. By contrast, modern America goes ballistic if a single black man is killed, especially by a policeman. The event is headline news for weeks.

The group “Black Lives Matter,” a distant cousin of the 1960’s “Black Panthers,” has led the assault against both the Police and society at large. Co-founder Alica Garza has vocally committed the group against “black poverty and genocide.”

But genocides throughout history may have taken more lives than even war. The greatest dictators of history were mainly twentieth century tyrants. Mao Zedong leads them all with an estimated 60 million of his own people killed during his reign. Stalin is not far behind, killing more Russians than Hitler, including over 10 million private farmers (“Kulaks”) in the late 1920’s alone. Stalin also engineered the great mass starvation in 1931-32 against the Ukraine, killing as many as 7.5 million Ukrainians. Going deeper into history, the Irish Potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century starved fifteen percent of the population (1.5 million) and forced emigration (mostly to America) of 25 percent. Great Britain stood by and watched.

We’re sorry about Freddie Gray.  Tragedies and injustices happen every day, but perspective tells us that this is not the worst of times.