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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

History is writ in thunder and whispers

We are living through episodes we don't quite understand — yet.

During a hearing by the Senate Armed Services

During a hearing by the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel about prevention and response to sexual assault in the military, Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), recounts her own experience while serving as a colonel in the Air Force, on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Photo Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

What a week, huh?

We’ve been saying that a lot lately.

We tell ourselves we are living through tumultuous times, with things happening every day that seem destined for the history books. And we are right.

But about which things? How can we really be certain, with our narrow attention spans and accelerating news cycle, what will be remembered as significant in the future? Will the things that knot our knickers today be the matters of import tomorrow?

That was driven home last week when the delightful “This Day in History” feature found in many newspapers recounted the highlights of March 6.

Some events were no-brainers. Those of us who were around in 1964 are not surprised the date is remembered as the day boxer Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. We also knew instantly six years later that posterity would remember March 6, 1970, when three members of the radical Weathermen group were killed when a bomb they were building in a Greenwich Village town house exploded.

But did anyone in America in 1836 grasp the impact of events in the Republic of Texas that March 6 when Mexican forces captured a small mission near San Antonio? (Remember the Alamo!) Surely, no Americans saw a culinary revolution beginning on March 6, 1912, when Nabisco’s corporate forerunner introduced the Oreo.

History sometimes is like the spot under your nose. It’s there, but you just can’t see it.

So what will history note from the March 6 that just passed? Will it be Wednesday’s announcement that the U.S. trade deficit jumped to a 10-year high, seized upon by President Donald Trump’s opponents as undermining his repeated promises to slash the gap? Or might it be Sen. Martha McSally, the first female Air Force pilot to fly in combat, telling a hushed hearing room in Washington that she once was raped by a superior officer, which might finally change how sexual abuse is handled by the U.S. military?

These dichotomies arise daily.

On Monday, the nation was abuzz about the House Judiciary Committee’s sweeping request for records on Trump’s campaign and businesses from 81 individuals, companies and government agencies. But history might remember better the study out of Denmark of a half-million children that definitively showed there is no link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

On Friday, while Trump grabbed headlines with his claim that Democrats have become the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish party, SpaceX safely brought home its unmanned Crew Dragon capsule from its voyage to the International Space Station, heralding a new era of commercial space travel.

And it wasn’t only last week.

Take Feb. 18. That’s the day 16 states filed suit against Trump’s emergency declaration to secure funding for a wall on the Southern border. That was big. But that also was the day the Australian government confirmed the extinction of a small brown rat called the Bramble Cay melomys — the first mammal known to have become extinct due to human-induced climate change. That’s epic.

Or Jan. 22. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to put up for votes competing Republican and Democratic proposals to end the long federal government shutdown. Less noisily, but far more profoundly, Boeing conducted the first test flight of its autonomous air taxi. Yes, a self-flying car.

And did anyone alive on Feb. 12, 1809, realize that the most important events that day were things about which they knew absolutely nothing — the births of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin?

We’re living through history. Even if we don’t know exactly what it is.

 Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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