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Mark Twain on the Two Terrors

After the September 11 bombings New Internationalist magazine published an issue titled Twin Terrors. While acknowledging the horrific suffering that the attacks caused the American people, it gently pointed out that for millions of people around the world fear, uncertainty, loss and physical danger are a daily reality, and have been for many years.  


The magazine contained a quote by Mark Twain that has stayed with me ever since. Twain is best remembered as a humourist, but he was also a fearless and insightful social critic. The quote comes from his novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, in which he reflects on the French Revolution, often referred to as The Reign of Terror: 


 There were two 'Reigns of Terror', if we could but remember and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passions, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon a thousand persons, the other upon a hundred million; but our shudders are all for the "horrors of 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 heartbreak? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief terror that 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 unspeakable bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.


 Horrific attacks such as the recent Paris bombings provoke outrage and decisive action. As they should. But on the same day as the Paris attacks 21,000 people died of starvation or malnutrition, 8,000 died from vaccine-preventable diseases, and millions of women and children were the victims of domestic violence. Where is the outrage at these terrors? Where is the decisive action? 


Shocking events will always grab our attention but we mustn't forget these long-term, slow-moving horrors that cause suffering to many, many more people while the cameras roll elsewhere. In the face of such enormous problems we can feel helpless. In his book The Humans, Matt Haig makes this poignant observation: 


 When you watch the news and see members of your species in turmoil, do not think there is nothing you can do. But know it is not done by watching news. 


Research the charities that are addressing issues you feel strongly about and find out how you can donate, raise funds or volunteer. Every little contribution makes a difference. 

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