Capitol Double Standards

Against The Grain, RKF, 010208
In his latest Against the Grain commentary,'s Dick Meyer takes exception to Congress' treatment of the homefront troops.

Six weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, Vice President Cheney made a frightening, blunt declaration. "For the first time in our history, we will probably suffer more casualties here at home in America than will our troops overseas."

The civilian casualty list from September 11 alone is unthinkably long. But in this war, as Mr. Cheney warned, more casualties will come from places like the Brentwood mail handling plant in Northeast Washington. We don't yet know who is responsible for the anthrax terrorism, if it's al Qaeda, Iraq or the Aryan Nation. But we do know it is terrorism. And we are told the war now being waged is a war against Terrorism – not just against bin Laden, or Islamic Terrorism or Domestic Terrorism. It’s like the War on Drugs – not just on Colombian Cocaine, or Mexican Heroin or Afghanistan Opium.

There are enemies, not an enemy.

There are "battlefields inside this country," in the words of Tom Ridge, the new Director of Homeland Security.

There are front-line soldiers the likes of which Americans have never seen before. As Alan Feuer wrote in The New York Times, they are "postal workers, baggage screeners, personal assistants and maintenance men. They are waging war in the new trenches: mailrooms, subway stations, airport lobbies, waiting rooms and ventilation sheds" The man who handles mail in CBS News’ Washington bureau is at risk just like our war correspondents.

There is no clear measure of victory or loss. Think of it this way: What would make the bin Laden terrorists cease their war? Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia? From the whole Middle East? Abandonment of Israel? Friendly relations with Iraq? All of the above? Would that appease the enemies? No.

There is no fundamental military or geo-political risk to America. What can these terrorists do to this big country? And to our allies and friends? Unlike past military foes, they can’t take territory from us, or defeat our military, blockade our borders or destabilize our government.

As so many have noted, including President Bush, terrorists can do but one thing to us – terrify us.

It is in this context that some of our professional soldiers on the Washington front in this war on terrorism, the politicians, must be judged harshly. They tell us again and again not to give in to fear, to soldier on. Easier said then done when postal workers are dying of anthrax. And in too many cases, the politicians aren’t setting much of an example. In some instances, there is a plain double standard.

The House leadership, in my view, has been rightly pilloried for shutting down. Not exactly a profile in courage. The New York Post got it about right with its headline: "Wmps."

But the contrast between how Congress ministered to itself during the anthrax cases and how Washington area postal workers were treated is well beyond wimpy, it's embarrassing and hypocritical. Teams of testers were bused to Capitol Hill immediately, while postal workers were bused off-site to be tested days later. Capitol offices were shut down and swabbed while the post offices that handled the Daschle anthrax letter stayed open. What kind of message does that send? ABC News, NBC News and CBS News all stayed open and busy after anthrax was found and they were not alone or irresponsible.

The House’s behavior is even more galling because it is House Republicans who delayed airport security legislation that is rather important to reassuring the traveling public and getting life back to normal. They have ideological objections to legislation passed 100-0 in the Senate that would make airport screeners federal workers (and perhaps create 28,000 new members of trade unions). Their objections are so strong and they are so convinced of their own righteousness that they have let six weeks pass since the attacks without passing news laws to tighten security on airplanes.

Of course, the airport that Members of Congress use, Reagan National Airport, has been given far more security than any other airport in the country. The number of flights has been cut, marshals are on the planes and national guardsmen patrol the corridors.

What kind of message does that send? That people in Washington, D.C. are more important than people in New York, Chicago or Houston? That the Capitol and other government buildings are more important than the Sears Tower, or the Mall of America or the Rose Bowl?

Well, yes, that is the message. And as ordinary people in ordinary places are being told that this war will have casualties at home and that they can best contribute to the war effort by simply carrying on with their lives and jobs, it is precisely the wrong message.

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