Tilly: Ants in the vacuum

BY ZACH TILLY | MAY 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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I’ve got the column space on the last day of the semester, so I’m obligated to say goodbye for now on behalf of this page and the paper. “Goodbye for now; see you on June 10.”

Personally, it’s been a pleasure writing here for the past few months, and I hope you’ll return to the Opinions page with glee in June when my tenure as this section’s editor formally begins.  I hope, too, that next month we’ll be in a better spot politically than we are today. (A guy can dream, yeah?)

Today, we’re stuck in a cycle of tragedies and inept responses, punctuated most recently by a chain of scandals in Washington of varying severity. The IRS profiled tea-party groups applying for tax-exempt status as 501(c)(4) social-welfare organizations, an understandable bureaucratic measure with undeniable chilling potential for free speech.

The Department of Justice seized Associated Press phone records as part of an investigation into a leak regarding a Yemen-based terror plot, a major intrusion upon the freedom of the press by the Obama administration. The investigation into last September’s attack on the American consulate in Benghazi also drags on and seems, at this point, to be more of a partisan hatchet job on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential aspirations than a moral crusade.

These controversies have ballooned so preposterously that this week they eclipsed some good news in the debate that has dominated Washington for years. Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office revised its fiscal 2013 deficit projection downward by about $200 billion to $642 billion and reported that the current budget outlook is better than expected for the next decade at least. The media largely papered over that story, which raises an unsettling question.

If the deficit falls in the middle of a Benghazi hearing, does it make a sound? Apparently not.

As tempting as it is to look past all these controversies, they’re still a little unnerving. How much seediness can a critical observer be expected to rationalize or justify on behalf of the people he believes in — or, at least, wants to believe in? With this in mind, I was feeling a little pessimistic about the future, until I had an encounter yesterday that put things in perspective. Bear with me here.

See, I woke up yesterday to find that ants had overrun my living room. I didn’t take a proper head count, but I assure you there were more ants than you’d be comfortable with in there. So I got the vacuum from the closet. I scouted their position and found they’d established a five-foot radius around their central command near my couch. Some brave souls — spies, perhaps — wandered out to 10 or 12 feet.

With the situation properly assessed, I massacred them. I was Anton Chigurh hobbling through my apartment; my vacuum — extendable sucking wand in one hand, tank in the other — was my air-powered bolt pistol. I was the unstoppable march of Death. I ambushed the advance guard first and traced their frantic retreat back to ground zero, a small chunk of a cookie that had slipped under the couch. The ants groped and writhed on their prized morsel even as I sucked it up — sucked them up too.

I dropped to the floor, stalking and eviscerating the stragglers who’d survived the primary campaign. I didn’t stop until I had destroyed their community entirely. I considered showing mercy to the last living ant, allowing him to go free so he could warn whatever friends he had left that the land of the Cookie Chunk is a land of certain death for all who enter. But I vacuumed his ass up instead.

And then, as I thought of the lives I’d ended, I wrestled with the questions that haunt conscientious bug killers. Who was I to end the lives of all those poor creatures? Didn’t they have a right to be alive just like me? In my sorrow, I looked at my vacuum tank and rejoiced. In the filth, against a backdrop of dust and hair that had been spun into allergic gray cotton candy in the bowels of my vacuum, the ants had remade their society. They were speckled and smeared like little coal miners, a little shaken up, but alive.

At the center of their new world, a mass of ants lurched, crested and broke over a single cookie piece, now caked with grit and fuzz. What a beautiful lesson, I thought, that even after such destruction, in such miserable circumstances the ants kept living.

Sure, I tossed them all in the Dumpster a few minutes later, but for a brief moment they reminded me of that most fundamental fact of life. Through the malaise and the muck, it goes on.

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