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We're All in This Together, but Actually We Aren't
25 October 2001
The questions hung in the Indian summer air.
The people who lingered on the grounds of D.C. General Hospital, a poor man's hospital that is mostly shut except for anthrax duty, did not ask the really big questions.
The postal workers who got shuttled to the hospital - bused over, finally, to pick up their Cipro - do not wonder who did this to them. They do not ask each other the TV-talk question, "Why do they hate us?" They do not wonder what comes next in Afghanistan.
Their question is the one on the lips of a bearded mail carrier, sweating with anger. His rounds make him a human go-between on the route from a contaminated mail center to the quarantined offices of Capitol Hill.
"Why would they give us gloves and a mask, when the people who go inside get full body suits?" he raged.
Inside is the now-famous Brentwood mail distribution center, which handles mail for the entire District of Columbia. It is the latest of many ground zeroes in the anthrax attacks.
The insiders get moonsuits. The postal workers get to find out, only after two of their own die from anthrax, that they need to get drugs.
The question of who gets the gloves and who gets the moonsuits is the same, really, as the question of who gets his office closed and sanitized, and who gets to stay on the job, there on the front lines. This is the 21st-century twist on a question of equity, old as the republic.
The postal workers answer it themselves.
They do not want to hear from the president of the United States, the head of the Centers for Disease Control, the postmaster general or the district's mayor or any talking head with wagging tongue, that everyone moved to protect them as quickly as they knew how. Experience tells them this is laughable or a bald lie, take your pick. When a letter stuffed with a powerful strain of anthrax was opened in Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle's office, the office - and soon after, all congressional offices on Capitol Hill - were shuttered and the workers immediately tested. It was only days later, after the two postal workers were at the hour of their death, that Brentwood and its people got the same treatment.
"Somebody in there believed it was serious enough to do that," letter carrier Malcolm X. Lee said of the congressional shutdown, still mostly in effect. "If they feel that way and they are representatives of the government, then what are we supposed to feel? We have families, too."
The official word from officials in charge is that no one could have known anthrax would get out of a sealed envelope.
"If we knew then what we know now, we would have acted earlier," D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams said at his daily anthrax news briefing on Wednesday. Williams at least had the decency to talk about what he knows is on the minds of his constituents. These are the people of Washington who are not seen on TV. They deliver the mail, answer the phones, clean the offices. They cook the catered meals that are eaten by the congressmen and the lobbyists. They serve and clean up.
"I think we've always been committed to making sure that all of our people regardless of where they work and what they look like and what their income is, are receiving the quality of care they deserve," Williams said.
Terror turns out to be a great equalizer. The bond traders and the dishwashers of the World Trade Center died together. The heroes of this time aren't extravagant celebrities but extraordinary firefighters.
That is what everyone says, anyway. Then we are reminded saying and doing aren't the same.
There are these postal workers, whose rounds make them a fixture on Capitol Hill but whose health seemed not to matter so much as the well-being of those they serve. There is the airline bailout money that went to the corporate suite, not the laid-off flight attendants.
There is this sophisticated public health system struggling to rise to the threat, and there are the injured from the New York and Pentagon attacks who haven't got health insurance. There is a so-called economic stimulus bill in the House that gives billions in breaks - on back taxes - to big corporations, and leaves unchanged an unemployment system that covers fewer than half the unemployed.
We are, when the attacks come, all in this together. But in their aftermath, it seems not.