Commentary: Devil’s night and the witching hour

Oct 30, 2012

I’m writing this with rain coming down, the wind howling, tree limbs down all over the place, and I‘m feeling lucky.

Lucky, that is, to be as far away as we are from the eastern seaboard. It almost seems as if we are in someone else’s screenplay. After all, doesn’t this sound like a made-for-TV movie? We are a week before a close presidential election. Suddenly, the mother of all storms hits. A freak hurricane mixed with a winter storm, in the wrong place at the wrong time. The nation is filled with uncertainty over what this means for the election, and for the country itself.

Will it prevent millions from voting? Will it cause frightened voters to stick with the tried and true, or will they take this as a sign that America needs a change? My guess is that we don’t know and probably won’t know, not at least until next week.

What is interesting, however, is that the only native-born Detroiter ever nominated for the presidency did say something pertinent to this in one of the seemingly endless pre-primary debates last year. Asked if the government’s role in emergency management was a responsibility that should be returned to the states, Mitt Romney said, “absolutely.” “That’s the right direction,” he said, adding, “and if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.“

Well, judging from what I’m seeing on my TV screen, this storm doesn’t seem to be respecting borders.  Ironically, a former journalist friend of mine named Sandy quit her job in Detroit last year, became a disaster specialist, and joined FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I wasn’t surprised that I wasn’t able to reach her yesterday; I suspect she is helping people survive her namesake.

Last spring, Sandy told me she had learned that everyone hates the federal government and thinks it has too much money. Except, that is, when their house is gone and they want help and a FEMA trailer, right now.  It should be noted that Romney yesterday denied that he had any intention of abolishing FEMA. But whatever your politics, it might be nice if it this storm serves in some way to remind us that we are one people. People are suffering from blue New York to red West Virginia.

Ironically, this is happening on the anniversary of what used to be a perennial disaster in Detroit: Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween. Back in the 80’s, an appalling custom sprang up of setting mostly abandoned buildings on fire in Detroit. It took a vast public campaign to get this phenomenon more or less under control.

This year, Detroit has fewer public safety officers than ever, and my guess is that the authorities were a little apprehensive about Devil’s Night this year. If there is a silver lining to this storm, it is that this doesn’t look like a night when people are going to be inclined to run around in the wind and rain, setting fires.

I don’t know how destructive this storm will finally be, who will win the election next week, or which Michigan ballot proposals may pass. I do know that we are all still pretty much in this together.

And we might want to remember that.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.