A Thousand Points of Darkness


New York. I see, or hear, that the No. 17 song on the country-and-western hit parade is something by Randy Travis called "Point of Light."

"If you see what's wrong and try to make it right," goes the lyric, "you will be a point of light."

That's nice. The White House persuaded Mr. Travis to write and sing about President Bush's "thousand points of light" program honoring volunteerism. It made the front page of the New York Times in a story about the point-of-light coordinator in the White House. That is the man who each day, in the president's name, picks a volunteer or volunteer organization to receive an award for good deeds done outside government.

There are a lot of good people in America doing good things, and they deserve any recognition they get. But specks of light do not change the reality that government is withdrawing from the good-work business because it costs too much and the vacuum is not being filled by volunteers but by a million points of darkness.

On one page inside the same newspaper, there were three stories about the horrors of darkness in the soul of the country's biggest city:

* "Two men were killed and three were critically injured in Manhattan Saturday evening when a driver in an automobile accident opened fire on a crowd of bystanders after one of them complained the car was blocking traffic . . . "

* "A 10-year-old Bronx girl was shot in the head when gunfire erupted around her as she played in front of her building . . . the shooting erupted on a street still crowded with adults watching over playing children."

* "An 8-year-old Manhattan boy whose disappearance on Friday prompted an extensive police search after he was last seen in Central Park was reunited with his mother yesterday. The police are seeking the man they said abducted him."

It has been hot and humid this past week in New York. My wife and I, both born in the city, once told one of our children that when we were his age and the heat filled the houses where 10-year-old Sharece Proctor was shot, people stayed up all night on the stoops, talking and sleeping. My wife said she took pillows out onto the fire escape and would read most of the night. I said people would go into Central Park, where 8-year-old Anthony Martin was kidnapped, thousands of them, and sleep on the grass.

The world is turned upside down and we are singing about it. We cannot see the forests for the trees in this darkness. A fool of a judge across the river in New Jersey ruled that it was a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States for the public library in Morristown to deny a seat at the table of learning to a homeless man because he smelled so bad that other people left. It was a surprising decision to me because I think the problem is snoring, or it is inside the Georgetown Library in Washington, where students and adults alike try to find a quiet place among sleeping bums. In the Santa Monica Library in California, you have trouble getting to the books because the homeless bring in carts and garbage bags filled with everything they own.

Don't get me wrong; I think the homeless should have access to public buildings. I think tax money should be used to build them shelter and to give them medical help. If we don't want to be taxed for that, preferring to keep the money ourselves and sing of volunteerism, I think the homeless, smelly and clean alike, should be allowed into the White House for a little rest.

It's a terrible time. In a very fine new book called "Why Americans Hate Politics," E.J. Dionne Jr., a Washington Post editor, says: "When the poor are seen as a 'special interest' while the wealthy are not, something very peculiar has happened to the national political dialogue."

We have lost our way. Or our minds. Poor people and middle-class people need the power of government to protect their children and to keep the libraries sanely open. It is stupid and crazy to think that country music and a guy with a candle, or a thousand men with candles, are going to lead us out of this darkness into the lighter places where the wealthy live and complain about taxes.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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