Andersen: Of ants and men |

Andersen: Of ants and men

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Guns and hatred equal death. How else to explain the rampage in Orlando? A reason to kill becomes a license to kill. Choose a motive, and choose the appropriate firearm. The rest is simple logistics.

“Why humans kill each other is beyond my comprehension,” writes “Tuesdays With Morrie” author Mitch Albom. In his latest book, “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto,” Albom concludes, “But I can testify that you have been doing it since your inception. Only the weapons change.”

Albom’s message comes through an unusual narrator: music. “The Magic Strings” conjures music as a prevailing force for expressing joy and suffering. Music becomes the narrative muse through which Albom ponders the often tragic global culture we humans have created.

There will be a lot of sad music coming out of the Orlando massacre, trying to understand, as Time magazine asked on its cover last week: “Why Did They Die?” Time’s headline underscores a list of the murdered, the victims of two fatal forces — hatred and guns.

Just a few days before the shooting, I was huddled in a dry wash with my son, Tait, and two old friends, Graeme and Charley. We were taking cover in the shade of a tall juniper in a remote desert canyon in southeastern Oregon during a bicycle tour. We were pushed close together by a scant bar of blessed shade, where we stretched out on a narrow gravel bar.

Flies buzzed lazily. Spiders darted here and there. Birds occasionally lighted on the tree. Charley was soon snoring. Graeme muttered in his sleep. Tait lay still, exploring his dreams. A light, cool breeze filtered through the wash.

I noticed a large red ant that had found a crumb of bread from the sandwich I had just eaten. For half an hour, I watched that ant struggle with that crumb, dragging it across a vast moonscape of enormous boulders. Enormous to the ant. Small to you and me.

The crumb was large and heavy, so the ant had to lift it with clutched mandibles, straining against the weight. When the crumb became stuck, the ant had to twist, turn, push and pull until it was freed. Other ants intervened, but the ant never let go of its payload. It paused for a split second after each faltering effort, only to continue the struggle.

Tenacity is a life force born of instinct and evolution. Those with the greatest tenacity survive the struggle. Chance plays a part. One errant step by me, and that ant’s labors would have ended. Life is tenuous.

Like that ant, humans struggle out of necessity for the well-being of the greater colony — for the collective society, the species. Our collective struggle is rife with stumbles.

What happened in Orlando was a grievous stumble. We pause a moment to mourn and reassess, and then we go on in the blink of an eye. We are stunned but quickly recover the instinct to move beyond the psycho-emotional obstacle.

Ants possess a measure of autonomy, perhaps the same measure that compels humans with a sense of self, purpose, motive and logistics. We are all pushing crumbs toward our anthills.

Eventually, my gaze was distracted by storm clouds overhead, by the shadow of a passing raven, by Charley’s slumbering snort. When I glanced back at the ground, the ant and its prized crumb were gone.

Two years ago on a bike tour across Israel, Graeme and I rode down the West Bank of the Jordan through the Great Rift Valley, where the earliest hominid footsteps came out of Africa. Human origins stem from the same anthill, but that doesn’t unite us. Instead, superficial differences breed hatred and killing.

Ants do battle against other ants. It’s the same with humanity. Albom asks why we kill one another. Time asks why they died in Orlando.

Drop a crumb, and an ant begins a great struggle for life. Give a weapon to a person consumed with hatred, and a struggle commences for death. Both struggles are observed in microcosm until our gaze is distracted by a shadow. We move on along the great continuum. Somehow, the colony endures.

Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays when he’s not gazing at anthills. He may be reached at

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