It was long ago in a different South -- the days of freedom riders and freedom songs, of SNCC workers and sit-ins. The bad old days of Orval Faubus and George Wallace and Ross Barnett. They were the good old days, too -- the days of Martin Luther King, when the choice between good and evil, law and defiance of it was clear, when justice rolled down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. And we would overcome some day.
One day somebody in the newsroom of the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial, where I was the editorial writer back then, said a bunch of kids staging a sit-in at the McDonald's on Main had been trapped there. A mob had formed outside and was throwing ammonia under the locked door, and wouldn't let the kids out. I went over to see for myself. Not a cop in sight. And if there had been? Would the cops have broken up the mob or just arrested the demonstrators?
I must have stood out in my old blue-cord suit and narrow 1960-ish tie and eyeglasses with the thick frames. Because I heard a mounting murmur behind me: "He's with the Commercial," which was always an incitement in those days. For our editorial views were well known, and well despised.
The murmurs behind me began to mount. "That's him, all right! Get him!" No hero I, and with no taste for martyrdom, I began to walk slowly, deliberately away. No hurry. I proceeded down the broken old sidewalk next to the McDonald's, with its uneven slabs dotted with the season's smushed chinaberries, toward my old Mercury coupe down the block. Calmly, very calmly, ever so calmly. Step by controlled step. Never let 'em see you sweat. I clambered into the car, slammed the door behind me, turned the key in the ignition, and was out of there.
Bill Hansen, the local SNCC worker, didn't fare as well. He'd been trapped inside with the kids. One of the bravest souls I've ever known, he'd been beaten up all across the South -- from Albany, Ga., to points west till he got to Arkansas, organizing as he went. He had the crushed jaw and broken ribs to show for it. The kind of martial decorations I was not eager to earn.
Mobs are like that. One minute simmering, the next explosive. Mercurial. A mob has no need for a leader; it has a mindlessness of its own. You can never tell when it will crystallize, and what it'll do when it does. It has no intelligence, just a kind of blind instinct. The individual is lost in it; the mob moves of its own.
Another mob I once saw: It was long ago in a different America, but not too different. It was just after George Wallace had been shot down in a Maryland parking lot on his way to winning another couple of presidential primaries. The next day, reduced to a paralytic in his bed of pain, he learned he had just won the Maryland and Michigan primaries.
The national convention I chose to attend that year was the one of his now leaderless American Independent Party. But its diehards weren't about to give up. The party's faithful remnant met in Louisville, where the delegates were still determined to nominate Wallace for president no matter what, and would not be swayed.
What little the party had of an establishment -- most of it looked on leave from the John Birch Society -- had to arrange a hasty phone hookup to Wallace's hospital bed before the convention could be talked out of nominating him. "I've got two open places and an infection that's still draining," he explained. "I can't."
The whole arena turned into a sea of sympathy for its fallen hero. And admiration. Which I had to share even if I'd never been a big Wallace fan, to put it mildly. He finally persuaded the delegates to let this cup pass from his lips. There wasn't a dry eye in the place. Including mine.
Then, within minutes, the chairman of the convention had to announce a news bulletin: the jury verdict in the case of his putative assassin, Arthur Herman Bremer: He'd been spared the death sentence, and been given 63 years instead. What had been a sea of loving admirers moved by sympathy turned into a seething mass of hatred, all of it turned against the would-be killer. ("Kill him!" "Hang him!" "Fry him!") Order could not be restored, not for some time. The taste for vengeance, blood vengeance, was in the churning air. The madness of crowds.
All those emotions from long ago came flooding back the other Sunday when I opened the paper and spotted a front-page headline: "Egyptians die, dance marking '11 uprising." The Arab Spring continues to turn into an ever deeper Arab Winter.
The anatomy of revolution is at its inexorable work again as hope turns to despair stage by stage. The revolution that overthrew Egypt's last military dictatorship now turns to another to save it from the Islamist fanatics it ushered into power. It's the classic pattern of all modern revolutions since the French one set the unalterable pattern. Now the Egyptian revolution enters its Napoleonic phase on schedule, like the progression of a familiar, much-studied, thoroughly charted disease.
It may be only a matter of time before this latest Egyptian general-emperor-savior is standing in the same dock his predecessor now occupies. The iron wheel of revolution is relentless, crushing those who suffer from the delusion they are in charge of it -- until it rolls over them.
The great exception to this deadly cycle was our own revolution, perhaps because it sought not just liberty, but liberty and order. It was in its way a deeply conservative revolution, seeking to conserve the rights the colonies had long enjoyed against a parliament that had set out to revoke them one by one. Even then it would take a long train of abuses before the colonists, even after the Revolution had broken out, would declare their independence.
The reluctant revolutionaries would first produce the flowing periods of the Declaration of Independence: "... that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness...."
Then, a tumultuous decade later, they would bequeath to us the sobering, law-bound language of the Constitution of the United States. Its sturdy 18th-century English would house the finely balanced clockwork of a constitution of much divided powers that would all work in concert to ensure "domestic Tranquility" and form "a more perfect Union."
In short, the opposite of ever churning mob rule.