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of butterflies and bombs

Bill Meredith

"…time and chance happeneth to us all."

History records that on August 12, 1785, Samuel Emmit met with a group of local citizens at Hockensmith’s Tavern and marked off a group of lots from his estate to create the town of Emmitsburg. It is further recorded that as the evening went on, Mr. Emmit was toasted enthusiastically and often. Perhaps this is the reason the streets of the town are off several degrees from a perfect east-west direction; however, they are close enough to it to determine that when our new house was built parallel to Lincoln Avenue, it would face approximately north.

That is why, as I sat on my porch one afternoon some 226 years later, I was appropriately positioned to spot a Monarch butterfly as it caught an updraft and soared over the old house where we used to live. It had been a hot day and there was no wind, but the air was moving in local eddies as it cooled off; and the Monarch came toward me with all the purposefulness of a paper airplane, scarcely moving its wings and wobbling back and forth as it slowly lost altitude. It might have been asleep and running on autopilot. By the time it reached the yard it was only a few feet above ground zero, and it glided over the walk and onto the porch as if it expected the front door to open and let it pass through the house and on out the back. When that didn’t happen, it showed its first sign of awareness; it began to flutter back and forth, conveying a sense of increasing urgency as it looked for a way to get past the house. It tried going up, but the ceiling was in the way; then as it explored the front of the house and the side walls of the porch again, its actions seemed to pass from urgency to desperation. The only open path was to go back the way it came, but it clearly was determined not to do so. That was North, and it had been there; it was South or bust. I finally got up and chased it back out into the yard, and then fortune changed in its favor; a breeze caught it and carried it up and over the house. I walked around to the back yard and watched it drift placidly, irresistibly southward until it was out of sight.

It is driven entirely by instinct; it has no awareness of where it came from or where it is headed. But it will husband its meager fuel supply, soaring when the wind is in its favor, tacking against it when necessary, hunkering down to wait if the weather gets bad. Flying actively only to get around obstacles, it will move inexorably toward a secluded valley in the mountains of central Mexico, where it has never been before. The odds are not in its favor; most likely, it will be mistaken for a meal by a naVve young blue jay, or get battered to pieces in a storm, or die in one of the thousand other ways nature offers. Yet there remains that one small chance that it will complete the journey and spend its winter amid thousands of its kind who also beat those odds, hanging on a butterfly tree and creating a scene of beauty beyond description.

As living beings, the butterfly and I have some things in common. We need food and shelter to survive; we share a drive to perpetuate our species. But beyond these generalities, our worlds are very different. In the butterfly’s world there is no right or wrong, no good or evil; there is merely survival or death. Some animals eat, and some are eaten. Some seasons are mild; some bring storms, droughts or other calamities. Whatever happens, the butterfly will be only dimly aware; its actions are governed by instincts that are programmed in its DNA, honed and perfected by the fact that they allowed its ancestors to survive. In my world, there are still a few instinctive activities, but most of the behavior of my species is based on conscious decisions; we have a brain capable of learning, and the freedom knowingly to select actions that will help or harm others. The upside of this is that we humans have the ability to create things of great beauty or utility. The downside is that we may create great evil.

In our rhetorical attempts to express our revulsion at events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, we sometimes refer to the perpetrators as animals. This is not a valid comparison; no animal could have, or would have done such a thing. Evil is a human quality, and the potential for it exists in all of us. We see evidence of this in the threats and vandalism to Moslem citizens and institutions in our country that followed the terrorist attacks. This is why we must be especially conscious of how we respond in the weeks and months ahead.

There is no question that a response must be made, but it should consist of actions that will not make things worse in the long term. Some of our leaders appear to be aware of this; their statements have begun to educate the public of the complexity of combating an enemy who is faceless, fanatical and dispersed among civilian populations. Unfortunately, others have responded with simplistic bravado and wild-west metaphors that seem designed to prepare the public for conventional military retaliation. Such an approach might result in the capture or death of some known terrorists, but the inevitable civilian casualties would brand us morally as no better than the terrorists ourselves; and they would exacerbate the anti-American sentiment that provides the terrorists with their most effective support.

Amid the rush to declare war without knowing whom it was to be declared against, many voices were heard lamenting that our world has changed and will never be the same. Such voices are naVve at best. We were appalled; we were horrified, we were outraged when the terrorists struck us; but only those who have been living in cocoons should have been surprised. We did not know precisely when, where or how, but we had to know an attack was coming. Both our intelligence forces, inadequate though they may be, and the attackers themselves have been telling us this would happen for at least the past decade. So the world did not change on September 11; only our awareness of reality changed.

At times like these the butterfly world, with its freedom from making decisions and its simple, direct emphasis on survival, looks attractive; but we cannot go there. We are stuck in our own world, complex, dangerous, contradictory as it is. We must use our intelligence (the human, not the military kind) to become aware of how our world really is, to survive in it, and to make it a better place. We do have that choice. It was good to see flags flying; patriotism, not blindly militaristic but consciously aimed at protecting our safety and freedoms, is a value we sometimes have lost in more cynical times. It was good to see the outpouring of support and generosity that occurred after the attacks; too often we have been self-centered and uncaring when times were better. These are the qualities our leaders must foster if we are to have a chance of winning the struggle we are in.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith