American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Honor in Times of Pestilence and Terror
If Albert Camus were alive today, he would undoubtedly have much to say about the current state of international relations and the human condition. Fortunately for us, we have his body of written works--both to serve as a caution against hardening our hearts and an inspiration to continue to act with love and sympathy. For in these times in which the dominant message is that violence equals salvation, patriotism equals redemption, and tighter state control equals penance, Camus' writings remind us of the essential role of "healers" in our society. His works also emphasize that thought is nothing if not connected to action.
One of Camus' most celebrated pieces was his 1947 novel The Plague (originally published as La Peste). Set in an ordinary seaside town in Camus' native Algeria, then a colonial French territory, the book documents a 10-month period during which the bubonic plague--an extremely contagious, fatal disease--exacts a high death toll and robs the town's residents of any semblance of a normal life. A foreboding smoky pall emanating from the crematorium--which operates around the clock--hangs eerily over the town. Soldiers guard the entrances to the town, which has been quarantined from the outside world, to prevent escape.
Out of that desolate mix arise two unassuming heroes--Bernard Rieux, the town doctor (who also serves as the story's narrator); and Jean Tarrou, a newcomer to the town who voluntarily assists the doctor in his grim tasks of diagnosing plague, caring for the dying, and arranging for the removal of the dead. In the following passage, Tarrou explains to Rieux what he thinks about plague.
"All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can't judge if it's simple, but I know it's true....If, by making that statement, I, too, become a carrier of the plague-germ, at least I don't do it willfully. I try, in short, to be an innocent murderer. You see, I've no great ambitions.
"I grant we should add a third category: that of the true healers. But it's a fact one doesn't come across many of them, and anyhow it must be a hard vocation. That's why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victims' side, so as to reduce the damage done. Among them I can at least try to discover how one attains to the third category; in other words, to peace."
Tarrou was swinging his leg, tapping the terrace lightly with his heel, as he concluded. After a short silence the doctor raised himself a little in his chair and asked if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace.
"Yes," he replied. "The path of sympathy." [p. 229-230]
Most of Camus' works were published between the years 1932 and 1957, and were shaped largely by World War II, the German occupation of France, and the French occupation of Algeria. Camus strove to define the essence of humanity during a most difficult historical period: the march of fascism and totalitarianism through Europe, with its accompanying police terrorism, torture, war, and concentration camps. He shunned indifference and stressed that by confronting injustice and adversity, one confirms the human spirit.
In The Plague, Camus expresses through his two protagonists, Rieux and Tarrou, his solidarity with downtrodden people and his opposition to all forms of killing-including state-sanctioned killing. During one discussion, Tarrou describes, with disgust and sadness, an execution he witnessed.
Have you ever seen a man shot by a firing-squad? .... Do you know that the firing-squad stands only a yard and a half from the condemned man? Do you know that if the victim took two steps forward his chest would touch the rifles? Do you know that, at this short range, the soldiers concentrate their fire on the region of the heart and their big bullets make a hole into which you could thrust your fist? No, you didn't know all that; those are things that are never spoken of. For the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than a human life. Decent folks must be allowed to sleep easy o' nights, mustn't they? Really it would be shockingly bad taste to linger on such details, that's common knowledge. But personally I've never been able to sleep well since then....
And thus I came to understand that I, anyhow, had had plague through all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I'd believed with all my soul that I was fighting it. I learned that I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I'd even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way.... When I spoke of these matters they told me not to be so squeamish; I should remember what great issues were at stake.... I replied that the most eminent of the plaguestricken, the men who wear red robes, also have excellent arguments to justify what they do, and once I admitted the arguments of necessity and force majeure put forward by the less eminent, I couldn't reject those of the eminent. To which they retorted that the surest way of playing the game of the red robes was to leave to them the monopoly of the death penalty. My reply to this was that if you gave in once, there was no reason for not continuing to give in. It seems to me that history has borne me out; today there's a sort of competition who will kill the most. They're all mad over murder and they couldn't stop killing men even if they wanted to....[p. 226-228]
All this brings us back to the present: What lessons would Camus have us take from his writings and apply to the world, with its spiraling violence, deepening poverty and despair, and shrinking liberties? What would Camus say to caring, conscientious people, especially those who are feeling powerless? In my opinion, Camus would say: Don't be indifferent, resist injustice, speak the truth, identify with the oppressed, and be a "healer"--one who attempts to lessen the suffering of others. Camus would say that confronting the madness is the only way to affirm and define our humanity. The following passage from the final page of The Plague seems to speak directly to us.
Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.
Nonetheless, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had had to be done, and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never ending fight against terror and its relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers. [p. 277-278]
--Phillis Engelbert is Peace Response Organizer
for the Michigan-Area AFSC and author of youth reference books.
She quotes from the Stuart Gilbert translation of The Plague
in this review.