Machismo no antidote for anthrax

October 24, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Expressions of good old American macho are filling the air as the country, collectively and individually, decides how to deal with the threat of spreading anthrax infection and possible death from terrorism of whatever source.

One view seems to hold that surely John Wayne, were he alive and a member of Congress, would not have fled the Capitol upon signs of the scary white powder delivered by mail to the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

The leaders of the House of Representatives who decided the better part of valor was to clear out while the place could be examined thoroughly were quickly labeled "wimps" by one New York tabloid newspaper.

Whereupon House members turned on their Senate colleagues, whose leaders had decided not to follow suit on their heels. They accused the senators of trying to show them up in the court of public machismo by saying, in effect, that real men don't tuck tail and run at the first indication of trouble.

As subsequent reports of serious infection have demonstrated, however, what is going on is not some kind of manhood test, but rather a challenge not only to the courage of the lawmakers and the nation at large, but also to their good judgment. When a threat of the potential proportions of a man-induced anthrax epidemic presents itself, it would be the height of folly to deal with it by thrusting out the national chest, declaring invulnerability to fear and putting on a show of defiance.

The answer, instead, is to face it squarely and level-headedly, acting rationally and without panic according to the best information available, in terms of both the facts and the informed counsel of the best medical intelligence at hand.

This is what the legislative leaders on both sides of Capitol Hill attempted to do, balancing their professional responsibilities with the perceived threat. As to the matter of setting a proper example for the public, the correct message was simply when in doubt, take all precautions.

If Congress is to be taken to task in the current situation, it deserves more criticism for foot-dragging on many of the anti-terrorism proposals that have come before it. After the initial show of bipartisanship and rallying around the president in his declaration of war on terrorism, members of both parties have let their political ideologies show in squabbles over, for example, whether airport baggage screeners should or shouldn't be on the federal payroll.

Similarly, plans for an economic stimulus package have reopened old partisan congressional disputes over tax cuts and federal spending, with each side accusing the other of using the crisis to advance its pre-Sept. 11 agenda and with the executive branch open to the same accusation.

In applying the machismo yardstick to officialdom's behavior in this crisis, not only Congress but the Bush administration as well has come in for a share of chest-thumping criticism. The decision to divert the president to a safe Nebraska military installation in the first hours after the Sept. 11 attacks foolishly produced some allegations of administration wimpiness, as has the decision since then to keep Vice President Dick Cheney at a safe "undisclosed location" for days at a time.

Such decisions may invite political criticism as "sending the wrong signal" to already nervous Americans, but if the terrorist threat is as real as recent evidence indicates, even John Wayne could be expected to take all reasonable precautions.

What we need now is not putting blinders on or exhibiting false bravado. We need more and better information from government officials about what those reasonable precautions are and dependable assurances from these officials, in both Congress and the executive branch, that they are resolutely taking all possible protective measures to meet the threats we face at home.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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