The angels are in the details

From one perspective, it might be argued that the community reaction to the incident of Peck’s lighthouse was excessive. Five years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, global terrorism is on the rise; deaths in Iraq continue to increase in a conflict the administration has dubbed “the long war;” the freedoms granted by our Constitution are vanishing daily; globalization threatens us with everything from declining wages to avian flu; and the devastating June flood is probably just a foretaste of the ills in store for us from global warming.

Most of us are bearing up under all these doomsday threats without a murmur; but when someone erects a plywood lighthouse, puts it on a sandy spit, and subsequently removes it, a chorus of outrage arises.

But sometimes, maybe, it’s just the small things that do count. It may be not the devil, but the angels, that are in the details.

Take, for example, the nation’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Bush administration has made a sweeping, large-scale, world-historical effort to remake the Middle East in its own image (against the wishes of most of its inhabitants). The result has been the promotion of terrorism, the destruction of the delicate balance between secularism and fundamentalist Islamic power in the region that had been maintained between Iran and Iraq, and the loss of U.S. credibility and prestige all around the world.

Now take a look at what our local communities are doing in response to 9/11 (see page 18, “Remembering 9/11.”) In Wayne County, there’s a blood drive, using the memory of lives lost to promote something that saves lives. In Monticello, a troop-support group will not only be holding a service, but packing care packages to send to troops who have been deployed in harm’s way (rightly or wrongly) as a response to the terrorist attacks. A church will hold a service that will “reveal the anguish in our hearts and present it in a form of prayer.” A peace group will hold meditations and vigils on peace and nonviolence.

Perhaps it is out of small local actions like these, not in grandiose plans to force history to our will, that the straw of 9/11 can be woven into gold.

Similarly, Art Peck’s lighthouse might be viewed as activism of a peculiar sort, an effort to make sense out of nonsense, even if only with tongue in cheek, and to put a distinctively human mark on a monstrously inhuman event. Art Peck, in his own quirky way, lit a candle instead of cursing the dark. In doing so, he spoke for a whole community, and that is why so many responded when someone blew the candle out.

Our point in saying this is not to castigate the National Park Service, which, whether one agrees with it or not, felt it had to be careful not to set a precedent for erecting ad hoc structures that could become river debris or adversely affect scenic values. But we do mean to applaud the vigorous community interest in this seemingly minor event, and what it tells us about who we are and where our power lies.

The actions our local communities are taking to remember 9/11 will not prevent a recurrence of the events of that terrible day, any more than Art Peck’s lighthouse would avert another flood. The sad truth is that disasters are part of the fabric of human life, and probably always will be. But it is in the small ways we handle them, whether with humor, generosity, compassion, tolerance—or arrogance, rage and fear—that the essence of our humanity resides, and that we discover the kind of people we are and want to be.

Also in this issue:

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Dr. Punnybone

Nancy Drew

Letters to the Editor

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The mot juste

To the editor:

FOLLY: Architecture, a whimsical or extravagant structure built to serve as a conversation piece, lend interest to a view, commemorate a person or event, etc., found esp. in England in the 18th century.