No uniformed bee-killer arrived. Instead, after a while, a tall fellow entered the scene wearing only jeans and a T-shirt. He was around 40, with a mop of graying hair and the lean physique of a craftsman. Carrying only a large, empty cardboard box, he strolled into the midst of the swarm, leaned the box against the statue, opened its flaps, and carefully adjusted its position. Then he gave a vigorous shake to a nearby nandina bush, causing another thousand bees to take flight. Satisfied, he stood calmly, watching.
Standing at a respectful distance, some men who apparently knew the tall fellow asked him what he was doing. He replied that he hoped to entice the swarm into his box, then carry them home to an empty hive on his farm.
The tall fellow, who builds sets for the Shakespeare Festival, explained that these bees came from an over-populated hive that was dividing. A new queen was about to hatch, so the senior queen, accompanied by about 10,000 retainers, had left to seek a new home. The bees were swarming around this statue while their scouts searched for a likely spot.
And because, at present, they had no hive to protect, they were entirely indifferent to intruders.
After watching a bit longer, it seemed to me that I could either walk over and join the tall fellow or slink timorously away. I'm not particularly brave, but like most people, I'm reluctant to seem fearful. So, by a series of stages, I eased into the swarm.
Soon I stood amidst thousands of swarming bees, as safe as a babe in its mother's arms. The only apt expression for what I felt at that moment was, "Cool!" I remained for about 20 minutes, listening as the tall fellow patiently repeated his lore to each curious newcomer. Occasionally, a nearsighted bee bumped into me and flew on, but more and more, the bees poured into the box, convinced they had found a new home.
Eventually, I slipped out of the swarm and went on my way.
Please understand that I don't tell this story to illustrate my courage. Remember, my first thought had involved uniformed authorities and toxic chemicals. But I learned more than bee science from this experience. The whole thing struck me as a parable.
It occurred to me that, like most Americans, I am quick to jump from fear to thoughts of lethal action. Since 9/11, we have lived in a culture of fear. As a result, we have armed our authorities with new powers as potentially toxic to our freedoms as aerosols are to bees. We have permitted them to send our young men and women to carry death to faraway peoples we do not understand, for reasons not clearly explained.
In short, when we are afraid, we place great value on the power to destroy and far less value on the power of understanding.
The tall fellow in the park taught me that bees at least under certain conditions are not to be feared. Once I understood, I did something I would not previously have dreamed of doing and emerged unharmed.
Understanding can be incredibly liberating.
In the days immediately after 9/11, a few thoughtful Americans approached the tragedy by asking why so many people in the Islamic world hated us enough to celebrate a savage act that killed thousands of innocents.
These thoughtful voices were quickly silenced by a torrent of condemnation. Nothing, we were told, could justify such brutality directed against innocent civilians. Anyone who could applaud 9/11 deserved not understanding but punishment. You're either with us or against us.
Without doubt, al Qaeda and its allies must be hunted down and destroyed. But these groups consist of a few thousand terrorists dwelling among many millions who dislike us even hate us but who have no active intention of harming us.
Strident voices among us demand a harsh and violent response to every expression of hostility toward America. To me, it seems such actions would only convert passive enemies into active ones. Perhaps, instead, we should consider converting them into friends.
The place to begin is by asking the questions silenced after 9/11, seeking to understand those whom we fear.
It works with bees. S
Frederick T. (Rick) Gray Jr. is a native of Chesterfield County. A teacher, actor and political activist, he served as secretary of the commonwealth of Virginia from 1978-1981.
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