- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

In the aftermath of September's terrorist attacks, President Bush had the right idea. Consistently and repeatedly, he encouraged Americans to get their lives back to normal as best they could, spend money, travel, go out to dinner with friends. The president set an example himself, flying to New York, taking mayors out to dinner, refusing to be cowed. "The best thing you can do for your country is go back to work," Mr. Bush kept telling us.

It was very good advice. A lot of us felt that if it was our national duty to go shopping, then, by golly, we would do our bit which may sound sillier than it actually is. Considering the economic and industrial might of the United States, even the awful murder of 5,000-plus people dwindles in comparison with the damage we can do to ourselves if a state of national paranoia and paralysis sets in. On the other hand, we can most certainly defeat the intentions of terrorists if we keep on keeping on.

But events of the past week have challenged that determination, and today we need cooler heads every bit as much as we did on Sept. 11. Maybe even more. The enemy's latest weapon is all but invisible and can slip into our homes and offices like a thief in the night, which is why this anthrax business is giving everybody the creeps. What's more, while the president's national-security team inspires a great deal of confidence, his health care officials decidedly do not. Some of them have been appallingly AWOL, like Surgeon General David Satcher. Others have been all over the map, like Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. It's not that anyone would envy these people their jobs right now, but it is their responsibility to provide leadership.

It is one thing for Mr. Thompson to shoot off his mouth prematurely, denying that the anthrax death in Florida of a photographer from the National Enquirer had anything to do with terrorism. It is quite another for the government to be so tardy in protecting the mail sorters and carriers at the Brentwood central mail sorting facility and other post offices. Meanwhile, officials leaped to treat Senate staffers following the anthrax letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office with Cipro. Postal workers have every reason to be angry.

Mr. Thompson yesterday rejected charges that the government has been slow to act. He promised a congressional hearing to "err on the side of caution to make sure people are protected," and now talks about not just anthrax but also smallpox, the plague, the butolinum toxin, rabbit fever, Ebola, etc. Just swell. So, we stand warned, but hardly in a very constructive way.

Some years ago, I unwittingly got an insight into what happens when the FBI and the U.S. Postal Service do take seriously a threat to the U.S. mail and the health of American households. A neighbor of mine in McLean Gardens in northwest Washington, a postal worker and a bit of an oddball, was discovered to have hoarded mail in his apartment over a 10-year period. That was bad enough. Even worse was the fact that his collections also counted an assortment of dead and barely alive pets, mostly pigeons and turtles. The whole place was a disgusting mess.

No one who ventured in there, be they FBI investigators or post office workers, did so without equipment that looked more appropriate for outer space than suburban Washington. Mountains of mail contaminated by bird droppings were carried off to be irradiated. However, so we were told, a good deal of it had to be destroyed as being too contaminated to be delivered with or without a barge pole.

Doesn't anthrax deserve the same level of seriousness? After all, not so long ago, it was a substance only discussed in the context of Soviet biological-warfare programs and Saddam Hussein's clandestine laboratories. Now it might land on our very doorstep. The question then becomes: How do we go about our business, taking reasonable and necessary precautions, but without giving in to panic?

In our offices here at the editorial pages of The Washington Times, where the letters to the editor are received, e-mail has never looked so inviting, nor has the fax machine. We are finding other ways to keep going while minimizing risks as best we can, but have no intention of pulling punches when writing about Osama bin Laden, his friends and his state sponsors.

Meanwhile, it would be helpful if our colleagues in the media would focus on known, quantifiable threats instead of trying to turn up the level of hysteria. Looking to the government, it owes us all the useful information we can get, as well as consistent and frequent briefings from the new office of Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge and other officials. And we desperately need to find ways to keep this in perspective. As one expert in biological warfare told me recently, "Look at it this way. Who would you rather be? The terrorists or us? Who has the great chance of prevailing?" Could anyone ever really be in doubt?


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