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The plague

By Jack J. Woehr
web posted October 1, 2001

I've found the perfect bedtime book for those reflective souls pondering the present instant of American history. May I highly recommend that you grab a copy of The Plague by Albert Camus and read it through.

Written in French (La Peste) in 1947, The Plague is the tale of the town of Oran in what was French Algeria being struck by bubonic plague. The epidemic descends upon the town not totally unperceived but wilfully unrecognized. In the smug and torpid colonial, commercial, bourgeois community of Oran, to recognize the advent of the plague would be to acknowledge that the Muslim quarter of the city, where the plague first strikes, has been permitted by the authorities and by the social system to descend into the filth of extreme poverty. Further, it would be an admission that what transpires in the Muslim quarter affects all Oran.

When the nature of the contagion is no longer deniable, the public begins to exhibit intense interest in the matter. The plague is on everyone's lips at all day and and every day. The national authorities take cognizance of the outbreak and seal off this ancient walled city. Anyone who has departed may return, but no-one may leave Oran. Suddenly, all classes of citizen find themselves thrown together in quarantine, beseiged by an invisible enemy.

The public struggles to come to grips with the new reality. At first, dominant in their minds are their own privations and their personal separation from loved ones who remain safely outside the city. They grapple with meaning, many rushing to the crowded cathedral the next Sunday to hear Fr. Paneloux preach on the topic of the day. The priest takes as his theme, "My brothers and sisters, you are in misery, and my brothers and sisters, you have earned it." The plague, holds the reverend father, since the dawn of history has come to cast at God's feet the proud and blind. "Meditate on that and fall on your knees," he preaches.

Many in the town take the priest's words to heart and concentrate on religion. But the majority, oppressed by an intangible foe, take to libertinism. The streets of Oran become gay with nightlife, with respected members of the community staggering home drunkenly in each other's arms in the early hours of the morning. Meanwhile, those charged with resisting the plague, the bureaucrats, the doctors, the guards of the gates, the gravediggers, carry out their increasingly wearying and thankless labors. One of these, Dr. Rieux, is too thoughtful to take either the course of religious obscurantism or dissipation. "I've lived too long in the hospitals to care much for the idea of collective punishment," he tells the priest. "Christians sometimes talk that way, but without really thinking about it. They are better than they appear."

The plague grows worse, and spreads everywhere, into every community within Oran. The people comfort one another that it can't possibly continue, that there will be a slackening, and abatement. None comes, and the mortality figures keep increasing. The authorities cease giving figures per week and announce them in the hundreds per day. Hurried burials of the victims give way to mass interrments in lime pits. Disorders and arsons break out. Curfew is established. Nightlife ends.

A moral change comes over the city. No sympathetic ear is left into which to pour out one's anguish. Everyone has enough anguish of their own. Forgotten are the loved ones left outside the city. All that one can focus on is the daily struggle to go about one's business under the shadow of imminent infection from a neighbor, from a stranger. People avoid physical contact with one another, avert their nostrils from each other's breath.

The authorities are driven by circumstance to increasingly harsh measures to maintain order, measures to which no reasonable person can object, for what else can be done? If order breaks down entirely, the city will go down in flames, disease and death. And still the bone-wearing labor of caring for the sick falls on Dr. Rieux and others, labor which the doctor can no longer fool himself into believing is an act of curing, merely an act of isolating the infected and recording their deaths. The city prefect comments with satisfaction to Rieux that their system of disposing of corpses via the tramway is vastly superior to the donkey carts of the African natives during epidemics of previous centuries. "Yes," says Rieux, "it's the same interrment, but we, we keep files. The progress is incontestable."

We of North America are in for the long haul. We've engaged ourselves to root out sacs of poison infecting the body politic of at least a score of nations. The flags are waving now and many people are cheering the troops as they march off to war. We sit echanted before the opiate of the modern masses, the television, anticipating eagerly the thud of the first bombs of revenge and invasion. Camus bids us to bear in mind what mood the public might be in a year hence, two years hence, when the novelty has worn off and the siege presses in on every family.

Now, more than ever, God bless America. I wish my country every success in the unavoidable conflict, although I do not believe that it was always inevitable. No nation can permit the disaffected and the wronged of a foreign nation to go about blowing up occupied office buildings, whatever the grievance. But if a monument is to be erected over the ashes of the World Trade Center, let there be written upon it in gold letters one hundred feet high, "Bad Policy Has Consequences."

Our plague
Our plague

To the charming and simple George W. Bush, we may be engaged in Zoroastrian conflict between purest good with vilest evil, but the road to this particular hell was paved with good intentions in the form of epic foreign policy blunders leading to the emergence of radical Islamic suicidal terrorists. This chain of blunders starts at the overthrow of Mohammed Mosadegh in the 1950's and extends to the cold-war abandonment of Egypt to the Soviets, to half a century of blindness to possibility of an equitable solution to the Palestinian problem, to the seemingly self-serving arming of the mujahedin to our own detriment, to the utterly pointless bombing of the Baka'a valley under Reagan, to the arming of Iraq against Iran, to the ultimately fruitless and interminable conflict with Iraq, to the aimless and brutal cruise missle strikes against Somalia and Afghanistan under Clinton which magically transformed Osama bin Laden from a dangerous maniac to a prince ensconced in a pirate kingdom, and beyond.

A few months back, we held a neighborhood party here in Fairmount. In attendance that day happened to be four cheery young police cadets, apparently college sophomores, two boys and two girls. As they joshed with one another in the refreshments tent, I asked a neighbor lady in her 60's, a Republican precinct woman, if she thought that these youngsters found it at all odd that police cameras were being set up in public places.

"No," she replied wistfully, "to them it's just something that's happening when they are young. They don't remember what America used to be like."

Most Americans seem to have lost not only their taste for freedom, but their memory of it. It's important for America's sake that those of us who remember endure the present world crisis. We must live and remember that the police spy cameras were going up on every street corner before September 11th, that America was well on its way to authoritarian government before the heinous attack. Without that rememberance, there is little chance to preserve even a remnant of American freedom in these days of the plague.

Jack J. Woehr of Fairmount, Colorado is an adept francophone but still hasn't mastered his cellular phone.

Buy The Plague in hardcover for only $20.30 or in paperback for $9.60 (20% off) at Amazon.com

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