The sentence proved perfect in construction — subject, verb, object — and meaning.
Find any sign with three words that say so much: “Spit Spreads Death.”
All right, I didn’t say the three words were appetizing. I just believe they did the job.
The sign became iconic about a century ago in Philadelphia, the locale of a coming exhibit with that grim name. It focuses on the flu epidemic of 1918.
Medicine might not have been fully sophisticated back then, but doctors recognized that the discharge of bodily fluids in public hastened the health emergency rooted in the “Spanish flu” virus.
In fact, the close quarters of a particular event in Philadelphia, the Liberty Loan Parade of Sept. 28, 1918, got ultimately blamed for being an inadvertent Petri dish for an influenza that killed 20,000 city residents over the next six months.
Skip ahead to modern America and find event goers wary, the crowds proving target-rich for anyone with a grudge to work out and a semi-automatic weapon at hand.
Back then, the evil had been microscopic, malicious only in its effectiveness.
On Saturday, Philadelphia will have another parade, this one to memorialize those lost in the pandemic — 675,000 people nationwide, an estimated 50 million globally — and marchers can choose the name of one of the victims to honor.
(At the time, they died so quickly and in such volume that no ceremony occasioned some deaths; many of the bodies went in mass graves.)
The exhibit at The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, opening next month, hopes to present not only historical information about this health calamity but to draw a line from that crisis to potential contemporary ones.
Philadelphians lining Broad Street 101 years ago had no idea their presence could set in motion a citywide catastrophe. They would know soon enough. It seems fitting that history looks back on this as an opportunity for learning and perspective.
And it poses a question about whether, a century in the future, Americans will look back with curiosity at the way their forebears addressed the epidemic of gun violence.
True, you can not equate Second Amendment guarantees with an emergency declaration to stop spitting on city streets. In Philadelphia, police officers got fresh authority to write fines or even arrest those depositing their spit in a public setting.
But constitutional assurances, ironclad though we hope them to be, get tempered from time to time.
The First Amendment guarantees an American’s right to speak freely. However, Congress passed into law the Sedition Act of 1918, a measure that prohibited “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” about the federal government.
For this reason, some writing at the time of pandemic got suppressed because of the prospect it might immunologically kill morale.
The gun violence debate currently feels like one of those movie franchises deep into the sequels. In mass ways, Americans have seen schoolchildren, office workers, nightclub goers, highway travelers, festival attendees, country music fans and Walmart shoppers among the victims.
Yet Congress has again done its slow-walk thing, letting temperatures cool from the latest atrocity and finding little common ground because of no effort to look for it.
Government studies on the impact of gun violence have gotten no funding since a congressional prohibition passed in 1996; that same year, the federal government provided $22 million for the Ocoee Whitewater Slalom venue for the Summer Olympic Games in Georgia.
In the year 2119, how will this be seen? At least with “Spit Spreads Death,” it feels like an effort was being made.