My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #14,
September 16, 2001


[This is a modified version of a column I wrote for my e-zine, ExLibris.]

Like you, I've been watching with horror since the planes crashed into the World Trade Center Tuesday morning. If ever there was an unredeemably vicious plot, this was surely it. And yet in one key way, it misfired.

So far we're only guessing about the killers' motives, but we have reason to believe that what they hated was not so much Americans but the American government -- an institution we haven't been all that fond of ourselves. Fewer than 50% of us have tended to say yes to that poll question about whether we trust our government to generally do the right thing.

And indeed, why should we? Most of what government does is so taken for granted that it's effectively invisible. We take for granted roads, bridges, clean water, safe meat, refuse-free neighborhoods, public schools and universities, public libraries and museums and parks, Medicare. If asked to name ten functions of government, many people couldn't do it.

In fact, when we do hear about government in the news media, it's almost always about what government is doing wrong. We hear about its failures, inefficiency, corruption, uncompetitiveness. Especially the last one, because there are so many people who would like to make money performing services government agencies currently deliver for free, like schools and databases and parks.

The terrorists have inadvertently counteracted all that bad press by letting us watch our local, state, and federal governments in powerfully effective action. The disaster has allowed Americans to understand that sometimes government is the only organization with enough power, money, expertise, personnel, and leadership to say, "OK, these are the things we need to do, this is the order we'll do them in, this is how many people we need, and this is the kind of equipment they'll need," and, bingo, that's what happens. We've discovered that our governments have even planned and trained to handle disasters we never believed would happen. Because of the terrorists, we've spent the last few days watching our governments organize rescue efforts, restore damaged infrastructure, investigate this appalling crime against us, and reassure us -- and the world -- that the grownups are in charge, that we will recover and fight back.

In the face of the rescue squads' extraordinary losses, it'll be a long time before we again take for granted those public servants who unhesitatingly charge toward the danger everyone else is running away from.

We've suddenly become aware of all kinds of government agencies we never heard of, or that never really seemed to matter to us before, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent in urban search and rescue teams, and the National Transportation Safety Board headed to Pennsylvania and New York and Washington to look for the planes' "black boxes."

One cabinet member after another held news conferences explaining what their departments could do to stabilize the nation. Alan Greenspan pumped extra cash into the system and guaranteed that Federal Reserve banks would remain open, giving business the confidence that money would continue to flow despite enormous economic uncertainty. The SEC and other agencies worked with Wall Street to make sure investment records and the financial telecommunications infrastructure were secure. The FBI showed startling speed in tracking down leads and identifying the terrorists; from what they discovered, it now seems possible that the FAA, by shutting down flights so swiftly, may have prevented other hijackings. Librarians kept on doing what they do best: informing people; they built web pages informing people about the emergency and available assistance. Even state attorneys general gained our gratitude when they announced huge fines for gas station owners who used the emergency as an excuse to double and triple their gas prices.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying these thugs did us a favor. Their actions were wholly evil, wholly unforgivable; our losses are wholly tragic. There are NO little rays of sunshine in the darkness they let loose on our land.

But we've had a chance to see government workers, many of them working double shifts, swallowing pain and anger and exhaustion to keep on doing what has to be done. When the present emergency is over, it may be harder for demagogues to score points by railing against government; the public servants who've sacrificed so much have shown us the human beings behind the shadowy word "government." The proper response to them is, "Thank you."

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