What the populace of the French Revolution can teach us about street crime today
In December 1793, with the Reign of Terror phase of the French Revolution well underway, Jeanne Becu, better known as Madame du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV, was sentenced to death by the courts of revolutionaries. French in power. Before long, she was taken to the guillotine and beheaded.
With public executions of aristocrats and political opponents of the regime commonplace, the conviction and execution of Madame du Barry was nothing special. Yet there was something unique about this event.
As the French Revolution reached its boiling point in late 1793, the use of the guillotine to eliminate, or as one might say today, nullify, political opponents of the Revolution became commonplace. Practically every day, one or more individuals, often numerous, were taken in a cart to a public place where a crowd of voyeurists awaited the bloody spectacle and celebrated the event.
Despite the horror of the process, virtually everyone who was put through the test, whether aristocrats, politicians and even common criminals, seemed to bear their martyrdom with enormous courage and dignity. .
While this stoicism generally embodied the bloody enforcement of revolutionary justice, there was one notable exception – Madame du Barry.
Instead of displaying the “noblesse oblige” behavior of most victims, as she is led to her execution, Madame du Barry begs for her life. She cried and screamed while being taken to the beheading site and fought back forcefully as the executioners sought to tie her to the board which would put her neck under the blade of the guillotine. It was noted that it took several minutes of effort by four executioners before the execution could take place. All the while, Madame du Barry’s cries echoed throughout the area as the gathered crowd gradually fell silent. Many onlookers, moved by the cries of the victim, seemed shocked by the sudden realization of the horror to which a fellow man was subjected. As Madame du Barry cried out in abject fear of her impending fate, some of those present even turned away in disgust from the deeply disturbing event.
The great artist Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who had repeatedly painted portraits of Madame du Barry and had become her friend, was deeply affected by Madame du Barry’s execution. Subsequently, she noted that she was convinced “that if the victims [of the Revolution] hadn’t been so proud, hadn’t met death with such courage, the Terror would have ended much sooner.
I remembered the tragic end of Madame du Barry and her desperate cries when my wife recounted with emotion an encounter she had just had with a homeless man on Wisconsin Avenue, in the heart of Georgetown in Washington . Apparently my wife was about to walk into a store when she was accosted by a man who reached out and grabbed her by the shoulder. As she explained, a mixture of fear and anger gripped her, and instinctively she let out a loud, piercing scream that could be heard quite a distance away.
Her scream startled the homeless man, who quickly fled the scene. But it also seemed to freeze the passers-by who, stunned by my wife’s cry of anguish, showed concern for her well-being. One individual even called the police. Unlike typical encounters with the begging and often troubled homeless people who roam freely in our urban centers, this encounter drew attention and sent the homeless person out of the area.
My wife’s explanation of the situation presented an example of why sometimes a primal cry can awaken in each of us concern for others and the incentive to avoid becoming victims. From his explanation, I doubt my wife intended to scream; she did so instinctively, expressing a deep, innate fear accompanied by a powerful sense of anger at having been accosted and touched without permission.
As crimes and unpleasant encounters proliferate and have become common occurrences for those of us who live in urban centers, perhaps now is the time for us to consider responding to these encounters with our voices and high voice. Silence seems to encourage bad behavior or, at least, seems to condone it. Dealing with this behavior is essential if the behavior is to be removed.
Just as Madame du Barry’s primal cries confronted the cruelty of the French Revolution’s radical form of justice and, if imitated, might have stopped that cruelty, so cries of outrage against reprehensible behavior on our streets might reduce this behavior. As long as no one is willing to forcefully express their anger, fear, and resistance, nothing will stop the intrusive and disturbing behavior.
My wife’s cry of anguish may have frightened her attacker, but it also served as a powerful wake-up call to all those around her who might otherwise not have been alerted to the presence of a disturbed individual who could have caused harm. Perhaps if everyone who has experienced unwanted and potentially dangerous harassment would take a firm stand and confront this behavior, this harassment could end. While dignity and stoicism have their place, sometimes the Barry’s approach can be the right one.
• Gérard Leval is a partner in the Washington office of a national law firm. His book, “Lobbying for Equality, Jacques Godard and the Struggle for Jewish Civil Rights during the French Revolution,” was published by HUC Press earlier this year.