Reigns of Terror: A historical perspective

The guillotine

What we have come to call civilization is based on terror. The lower ranks (slaves, common laborers, and of course women) are kept in line through fear and/or dreadful punishments, while the upper ranks may commit crimes with minimal penalties or even impunity. For millennia we have been taught that this is right and just and ordained by whatever Divinity we are supposed to worship.

This reign of terror has been documented throughout history. My high school textbooks said that the introduction of legal codes was a great step forward for humanity—but they never actually presented us with copies of those first written laws. If they had, we might have been horrified. Here are some extracts from the earliest, the laws of Ur-Nammu, king of the city of Ur in Sumeria, who reigned between 2047-2030 BCE:

If a slave marries a free woman, he is to give his firstborn son to his owner.
If a man’s wife pursues another man and he sleeps with her, the woman shall be killed and the man set free.
If a slave woman speaks insolently to her mistress, her mouth shall be scoured with one quart of salt.

And from the code of Hammurabi, dated 1754 BCE:

If a man puts out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out; if he breaks another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.
If he puts out the eye of a freed slave, or breaks that man’s bone, he shall pay one gold mina. In the case of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half its value [to the owner].
If anyone strikes the body of a man higher in rank, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.
If a man strikes a free-born woman and she miscarries, he shall pay 10 shekels for her loss. If the woman dies, the man’s daughter shall be put to death.
If he causes a freed slave to miscarry, he shall pay 5 shekels; if the woman dies, he shall pay half a mina. If he causes a slave to miscarry, he shall pay 2 shekels; if she dies, he shall pay 1/3 of a mina.

Let’s fast-forward to 18th Century France: prior to the Revolution it was in theory an absolute monarchy. In actuality, it was feudal, with a stratified system of nobles and cardinals at the upper end, peasants and workers at the bottom. Those at the low end were expected to provide free labor at various times, were presumed guilty if arrested, and could be tortured. And
at every level, the women were worse off than their male counterparts.

It has been reported that the coach of Madame Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, ran over an old woman. The lady threw a gold coin out the window and said, “Here’s something to bury her with. Go on, coachman.” Such incidents were not infrequent. Yet we are taught to abhor the subsequent Revolution and pity the aristocrats who were guillotined during that period. Here’s what Mark Twain had to say about it:

“THERE were two ‘Reigns of Terror’…the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the ‘horrors’ of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break?…A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”

Fast-forward again to 21st Century America, where we are all equal under the law. That is, unless you are poor and not white and are being held in jail for a crime you didn’t commit, but you can’t afford to make bail so you lose your job, your apartment, and custody of your kids. Unless you are son of a rich man whose drunk driving kills four people, and you get probation. Unless you are a white athlete at Stanford and you get six months for raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, or a black athlete who got 6 years for a rape he didn’t commit (the woman recanted later). Or you’re an asylum seeker in a for-profit ICE prison, and they force you to provide free labor. Or, as I discussed in a previous blog post, you are poor and black and a cop shoots you in the back and gets no penalty at all.

It doesn’t matter what country you are in, or what century. The lower orders are always given some reason for why things are the way they are: Inanna the god of Sumer handed down these laws from heaven, Yahweh did the same at Mt. Sinai. You were bad in a previous incarnation, and if you’re good now, you’ll be born into a higher caste next time round. Your people were ignorant savages, and we enslaved you in order to civilize you. If you work hard, God will bless you with prosperity. And if you are female, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” But the underlying message is always the same: obey or else.

Such is the nature of “civilization.”

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