We're all feeling our way in unfamiliar territory

October 21, 2001|By Michael Olesker

TEN DAYS AGO, about 500 pieces of mail arrived in the morning at the Washington office of Rep. Elijah Cummings. Somebody had to open them. In the early afternoon, roughly another 500 pieces of mail arrived, and in late afternoon, maybe another 500. This was known as an ordinary day. Now it is perceived as a health catastrophe in the making.

On the day the House of Representatives shuddered and shut its doors last week, Cummings, the congressman out of West Baltimore, came home. Investigators were combing the House for traces of anthrax, the terrorist weapon arriving in envelopes that now chills a whole country.

In Washington, all congressional work was shutting down for the week. Cummings started doing arithmetic in his head. Fifteen hundred letters a day - not including e-mails and faxes - comes to 7,500 mailings arriving each week. He is but one of 435 members of the House and just one of 535 members of the U.S. Congress.

As Cummings computed the numbers, the city of Baltimore came out of its own cringe. This was dinnertime on Wednesday, the day the FBI contacted City Hall with a thing they considered a "credible" threat of a terrorist attack against the city.

The mayor sent out public warnings to businesses, to schools and hospitals: Take extra care. The police commissioner sent undercover officers out to look for suspicious activities and stepped up inspections of trucks carrying hazardous materials. The city's nervousness was broadcast on national TV and radio.

And in Baltimore County, they were breathing easier after a slight scare in a mailroom that almost nobody knew about - which is the way the county executive, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, specifically wanted it.

"We're trying to be as low-key as we can," Ruppersberger said. "People are nervous, and we don't want to add to the nervousness. Somebody found something in the mailroom out here, but it turned out to be nothing. We've got to get about our business and not make ourselves crazy."

But it's not so easy. We've never been this way before, still reeling from the airplane attacks of Sept. 11, still absorbing the daily TV news barrages and now caught up in the anthrax scares. The people who run our governments have impressive titles, but they are just like the rest of us: feeling their way across a darkened terrain in which nobody exactly knows the way.

So we watch them now, trying to be cautious, trying to keep everyone calm - but trying, also, to let people know of the possible dangers. And nobody's entirely certain about the right psychological approach: O'Malley's out-front public warnings or Ruppersberger's business-as-close-to-usual-as-possible approach; Congress shutting down while investigators search for anthrax traces or its anticipated return to work tomorrow.

"This is not bringing us to our knees," Cummings was saying Wednesday evening. He'd sent all his Washington staff home, as had every other House member. "It's just an attempt to look at our buildings carefully, so that no employees are in harm's way. They're concerned - and rightly so. If we're going to err, let's err on the side of safety."

"How about yourself?" Cummings was asked now. "Are you scared?"

He thought about the question for a tick of the clock and then shook his head slowly.

"Nah," he said. "I'm 50; I've lived my life."

"You've lived your life?" he was asked.

It's the thing you hear too often now from people of a certain age: that we've had good lives, wonderful times, but what happens now to our children, who will live in the shadow of the terrorists in ways that their elders never have?

"What I mean," Cummings said, "is that there are so many wonderful young people who come to work down in Washington every day, and they give their hearts. If something happened to them, that would hurt me very much. I don't think about my personal safety. Elijah Cummings can take care of himself. But these are kids whose parents have entrusted their children to me."

In a larger sense, he was describing not just interns and employees, but all those whose interests are protected by elected officials. They are the governmental parent figures to their constituents.

Those around Martin O'Malley say it's the thing that has driven his high-profile stance on public safety. And it's also the thing that's driven Ruppersberger's low-key approach. Each is a variation on a theme: doing the best we can on short notice.

By week's end, O'Malley was saying he'd issued his midweek warning "not just to alert people, but to show them that life goes on. I was still going about my job. I wasn't getting my wife and kids out of town. I wanted people to see that. And they did. We didn't have people clogging the streets; we didn't have mass evacuation."

We are still, all of us, feeling our way.

"These guys," Elijah Cummings was saying now, meaning the terrorists, "know how to disrupt. But it doesn't mean life stops. It doesn't mean the government stops. That's what they want. We may fall down in this country, but we do get up. We may fear for our safety, but we do go on."

It's the particulars that concern us now: the psychological signals that our leaders send out, and the emotions we sift through in the sanctity of our own heads. We're all figuring this out as we go along, and hoping to reach a safe place together.

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