Washington Panic is one available response to the double terrorist assaults on American life, and many members of this country's political and social elite have availed themselves of it. In contrast, working-class Americans have by and large shown steadiness and endurance in the face of provocation or danger.
U.S. postal workers have emerged as the latest group of Americans to whom the country suddenly expresses a sense of debt and gratitude just for being on the job, at a time when that job has become at least theoretically hazardous. Our mail carriers and sorters do not labor in the same outwardly heroic circumstances as did New York's firefighters and police officers or the rescue squads that raced to the Pentagon on Sept. 11. But as they stand in long lines to be tested for anthrax, postal workers express the same down-to-earth clarity about why they are continuing to do what they do, in terms that you can hear at Ground Zero as well.
It is more than fatalism, addiction to routine, or even the sense of duty that many of the new workaday heroes manifest. It is at some level society's survival instinct on display.
To get through this they will have to get through it together, the workers suggest. And so will we all. Society must make large adjustments to fit the new dangers into a collective frame of reference of what is prudent, and what is imprudent. Reasoned choice becomes a conscious way of life.
For people in my line of work, opening a bulky letter that is taped shut and has no recognizable return address has become the equivalent of crossing Broadway at rush hour blindfolded. You don't do it.
Americans will quickly learn what to do to lessen risk. Britain decided it could forgo street trash receptacles when bombs kept turning up there. Israelis periodically learn which bus routes to avoid when suicide bombers stalk them.
One big change that occurs immediately in a besieged democracy is that the average citizen's need to know expands enormously. Articles or broadcasts that detail anthrax symptoms or the tribal politics in Afghanistan that may be crucial to ending the U.S. campaign there are consumed by audiences that would have been indifferent to them a few months ago. The media, which have at times stoked the fires of panic in recent weeks, also eventually contain enough needed information to restore reasoned choice.
Getting from here (uproar, horror headlines) to there (calm or even grim acceptance of and adjustment to the new dangers) has been made no easier by the unsteady message from and performance of key members of the Bush Cabinet and of Congress.
Americans may be confused; stupid they are not. They see the panic that pushes Health Secretary Tommy Thompson to rush forward to reassure them before he knows what is going on, or that causes Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to cry out that he knows something awful is about to happen to the country but he can't tell the people how he knows it.
Amid the chatter about gas masks, Cipro, and personal moon suits emanating from television's talking heads, newspapers and magazines, and other vehicles for narrow, what-about-me commentary, Americans have noticed this reality:
The anthrax letters that have kept fear at the forefront of the American mind were addressed to political and media celebrities. Yet it is postal workers, and administrative assistants and secretaries who have borne the brunt of this fiendish terrorist assault. The workplace and particularly the post office has become the homefront battleground in the war against terror.
Talk about shooting the messenger.
This is no appeal to class warfare instincts. Nothing could be sillier or more counterproductive. My point is that societies save themselves from the bottom up. Survival lies in the collective reflex of workers, entrepreneurs, managers and others to pull together in crisis and maintain their common society by rapidly adjusting to change.
New public health infrastructure, more efficient law enforcement, wise leadership and myriad other government services are on our national checklist for dealing with mass disaster.
But our greatest asset must be the sense of personal responsibility that Americans take in their daily lives, for themselves and for society at large. In the mountains of Afghanistan, in the ruins of the World Trade Center and in the Brentwood postal facility, men and women wearing different uniforms but with common purpose show us the way.