Wednesday, April 19, 2006

April 19

It would be difficult to imagine a more violent and depressing day than April 19. Unless something truly spectacular occurs in the next few minutes, my daughter will have the good fortune not to recognize this as the day of her birth.

The April 19 bloodbath begins with the the Feast of St. Alphege, so named for a certain Archbishop of Canterbury who was bludgeoned to death by the marauding Danes on this date in 1012. After seven months in captivity, Alphege refused to allow his three thousand pounds ransom to be paid by the English crown; his Danish captors, disgruntled and loaded with drink, set themselves upon the poor, stubborn cleric and pulverized him remorselessly. His death is described as follows in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:
Then on the Saturday was the army much stirred against the bishop; because he would not promise them any fee, and forbade that any man should give anything for him. They were also much drunken; for there was wine brought them from the south. Then took they the bishop, and led him to their hustings, on the eve of the Sunday after Easter, which was the thirteenth before the calends of May; and there they then shamefully killed him. They overwhelmed him with bones and horns of oxen; and one of them smote him with an axe-iron on the head; so that he sunk downwards with the blow; and his holy blood fell on the earth, whilst his sacred soul was sent to the realm of God.

Placing an awfully high price on conjecture (as Anatole France would have phrased it), Alphege elected to die for his faith.

Risking limb and life for a hopeless cause of their own, a mob of pro-secessionist yokels chose this date in 1861 to trash Baltimore in protest against the impending war between the states. As the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry passed through the city, they were attacked by a mob bearing cobblestones and brickbats; in arguably one of the first skirmishes of the American Civil War, soldiers and townsmen battled throughout the afternoon as four people lost their lives. Among the dead was listed Private Luther Ladd of Massachusetts, whose last words were implausibly reported to be "God save the Stars and Stripes." Within a month, President Lincoln declared martial law in Baltimore and arrested the mayor and other public officials, all of whom were confined at Ft. McHenry.

Amid another divisive conflict a century later, Vietnam War veterans gathered in the nation's capital on 19 April 1971 to commence a series of demonstrations known as Dewey Canyon III -- ten years to the day after the failed landing of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs. Reverend Jackson Day, a former military chaplain who had quit his position in protest against the war, offered these eloquent words that afternoon at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:
Maybe there are some others here like me--who wanted desperately to believe that what we were doing was acceptable, who hung on the words of "revolutionary development" and "winning the hearts and minds of the people." . . . I believe there is something in all of us that would wave a flag for the dream of an America that brings medicine and candy, but we are gathered here today, waving no flags, in the ruins of that dream. Some of you saw right away the evil of what was going on; others of us one by one, adding and re-adding the balance sheet of what was happening and what could possibly be accomplished finally saw that no goal could be so laudable, or defense so necessary, as to justify what we have visited upon the people of Indochina.

Reverend Day's struggle against inhumanity was prefigured, perhaps, by the final battle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on this date in 1943, the eve of Passover. In response to unremitting sniper and grenade attacks, the Nazis demolished the Warsaw ghetto block by block, encircling and destroying the Jewish population of the city. In the fighting that followed the April 19 uprising, over 13,000 Jews were killed; after the revolt had been suppressed, 50,000 additional Jews were transported to the gas chambers at Treblinka, which had recently been upgraded to kill three thousand people in two hours.

Finally, today marks the 231st anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, where a small band of Massachusetts farmers took up arms against the British empire. Timothy McVeigh, perhaps believing he was acting in their spirit, rented a Ryder truck on this date in 1995, stuffed it with ammonium nitrate and nitromethane, and parked it in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.