- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

This has not been a particularly good week on the home front. There certainly will be better; there probably will be worse. Last week ended with an unseemly spat between the House and the Senate. While the House's decision to leave a day early to facilitate an anthrax search fell short of conspicuous gallantry, it was immature of the senators to glory in their better decision to stay.

Too many senators swaggered around Washington clanging their brass testicles, which some of them had rented for the occasion, and seemed to suggest that real men inhale anthrax. House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt not unfairly characterized that attitude as "stupid."

With the health of 20,000 employees in mind, the House leaders opted for prudence over gallantry a defensible decision that few Americans felt inclined to defend. It did have the look of a big Teletubby group hug at a time when America was looking for some Yankee Doodle pluck.

I have a feeling, though, that before this is over, we will all have more than enough opportunities to prove our courage. And I know that the House members, of both parties, are appalled at the public effect of their decision. These are proud and gutsy men and women who are now, more than ever, determined not to let down our side.

On the anthrax front death came back from its holiday, while the government's misfeasant responses bordered on the scandalous. It was hard not to notice that when big media and the Senate had anthrax reported, the public health agencies (specifically the Center for Disease Control) snapped into action and immediately tested and treated every person in the vicinity.

But when it came to attending to the health of the postal workers, days passed without any testing or medication. At least two deaths resulted. Even after the deaths, the CDC's slow-motion reaction was defended by the White House as acting "as aggressively and quickly as they could." This is pure nonsense. It was, perhaps, defensible as a pardonable failure to think through the full implications of the chain of custody of the Daschle anthrax letter. But it was not quick and aggressive.

Of course, we are all learning to live and function in a terribly changed world, and bureaucracies are famously slow to react. But it is not useful for the White House to commend government actions that were manifestly ill-considered and in need of improvement.

In the case of the CDC, this is the second time they have been slow to respond. It took them five days after anthrax had been diagnosed in the American General Media incident in Florida before they started testing. Did they instinctively act quicker for big media and the Senate than they did for tabloid media and postal workers? I don't know. I hope it was just random mistakes. But there is no quicker way for the government to lose its well-deserved public trust, than to be seen to favor the elites over the rest of the country.

It was particularly exasperating to hear public health officials explain their inaction by claiming that there was "no evidence" requiring action. As the British astronomer Sir Martin Rees once observed about heavenly bodies: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

Similarly, experts were saying this week that small-pox vaccinations are not needed now, because "there is no evidence of small pox." Good grief, by the time the evidence is available, it will be too late to vaccinate (small pox vaccinations must be given no later than a day or two after infection occurs usually before symptoms appear).

Last Sunday, I was listening to a radio preacher advise his flock that it didn't matter about our past sins, it was time to get right with Jesus because you never know when you are going to die. As I was driving up I-95 at 85 mph between two 18-wheelers at the time, it seemed like good advice. And, more generally, it's good advice for our country right now.

We don't have the time or need for recriminations. But we do need to prepare ourselves for the likely onslaught. I am not angry at government officials or agencies for their past and present mistakes. There is no utility in anger. But from the president on down to all of us, we need to be made promptly and clearly aware of our mistakes. The time is too short for vicious charges or defensive reactions.

We should all offer and receive criticism graciously neither inflicting opprobrium nor seeking partisan gain. But we don't have time to excuse incompetence, just for good fellowship's sake.

America is in a mortal struggle, and we must quickly coach each other to effective action.

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