In uncertain times, U.S. officials are still human

This Just In...

October 26, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

I HEARD the postmaster general criticized on national television by some smug image consultant for not using the "right tone" to say there are no guarantees our mail is safe from anthrax contamination. Before this week, most Americans had never heard of John E. Potter, much less knew his position. His job as postmaster general doesn't strike me as one that allows a lot of honing of one's public speaking and meet-the-press skills.

Besides, exactly what "tone" is appropriate for stating the frightening truth that, with tons of mail running through the nation's massive circulatory system - 208 million packages and letters a day - some of it might contain microscopic anthrax spores?

"We're telling people there is a threat - that right now the threat is in the mail," Potter said. "There are no guarantees that mail is safe."

I don't know how "tone" changes the impact of that message. Would we have felt better had Fred Rogers made the announcement?

And yes, the feds messed up by not getting postal workers in Washington tested earlier, but I'd just like to remind all the second-guessers out there that we've been floating in uncharted space since Sept. 11. What had never happened has happened. Letters containing potentially deadly bacteria - that's a new one. Government officials might be forgiven for not knowing every possible angle.

For not knowing, for instance, that anthrax spores could be released from a sealed envelope.

I know: Tell that to the families of those two postal workers who died this week.

I agree: There's no way it will ever be right for them. The feds should have immediately tested postal workers in the flow of mail that ended up in Sen. Tom Daschle's office.

We all know that - now.

Surgeon General David Satcher says medical experts didn't realize there was danger in an unopened envelope of anthrax. "The fact of the matter is that we were wrong because we haven't been here before, and we're learning together," he said.

Don't get me wrong: Government officials are not above criticism because they're not above bad decisions and not above fudging the truth.

But ask yourself:

1. Before the attacks started, did I know what anthrax was?

2. Did I know it could be mailed in a simple white envelope?

3. Did I know it could be a danger even if it stayed inside the simple, white envelope?

If you answered "yes" to all of the above, then you probably should be on the FBI's "watch list."

If you answered "no" to all of the above, then you're just an average American like me, going along, loving life, and not thinking these unthinkable thoughts. Your mind was on other things - work, the kids, remembering to buy a new battery for the remote. You weren't thinking "spores." You'd never heard of "Cipro." If you'd heard the word "anthrax," you might have thought of a potential bacterial threat to troops in the Persian Gulf war, but more likely you thought someone had mispronounced the name of the nation's largest interstate passenger rail service.

I'm guessing that you never wrote your congressional rep to ask for more federal funding to protect the nation against possible anthrax attacks.

I'm guessing you didn't return your tax rebate check with a note to the FBI that it increase spending on counterterrorism.

And I'll guess further that you never called your favorite talk-show host, Rush Limbaugh, to express a concern about any of this with him.

Let's agree: Before 9-11, terrorism was a gnat on the nation's screen door.

All that we're experiencing is new and awful - the reality of the unthinkable - and we expect someone somewhere to save us from it.

We think the government ought to save us - the government of health, science and human welfare, the government that delivers the mail and monitors the air and the water supply, the government that serves and protects a nation of 281 million people.

Of course, a lot of Americans have a hypocritical attitude toward the men and women in this government: They expect them to have all the answers, and they'd prefer they not exist.

We hear the federal government bashed frequently, usually on talk radio shows, by men who haven't lifted a finger in public service in years, and by the free-market, anti-governmentalists who like to dismiss Washington as a costly, moribund, bureaucratic mess. They think the "private sector" could handle everything better and keep the nation healthy and strong.

Oddly, I don't hear them bellowing bravely about the free market taking care of the anthrax problem and airport security. This crowd looks with everyone else to Washington for answers to these complex problems.

So maybe this time - this unprecedented time - a principled and patriotic American might hold his tongue as mere mortals in the nation's capital try to solve these complex problems and tell us how to protect ourselves, our co-workers and our families.

Under the present circumstances, here in the early stages of our new so-called life, those mere mortals deserve a break.

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