Tuesday, October 23, 2001


So we are reminded by Michael Crowley of The New Republic, who offers a far milder rebuke of House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt -- for bolting at the first sign of spores on Capitol Hill -- than did the New York Post, with its headline "WIMPS: THE LEADERS WHO RAN AWAY FROM ANTHRAX."

Crowley observes:

Hastert in particular made a fool of himself by flatly stating that "this stuff has gotten into the ventilation system, it's going through the tunnels." But he also made the incredibly reckless observation that he is "not somebody who's qualified in the areas of communicable diseases or contagious diseases"-- clearly, since anthrax is not a contagious disease and the distinction is enormously important for keeping the public calm and informed about the proper threat.

But a little later, in offering up a half-hearted defense of Hastert's instincts, Crowley observes further:

At a briefing yesterday, police and Pentagon officials told members of Congress that the anthrax does appear to have spread beyond the Hart building. A worker based in the Capitol who never entered Daschle's Hart office has tested positive for exposure to anthrax. This person did hug staffers in the affected office, the aide said, speculating that he or she could have trailed spores into the Capitol itself. This, says the aide, is clear evidence in support of the decision to evacuate House: "It turns out we were right."

Certainly, the business of legislating away our civil rights in the name of anti-terrorism can wait a few days. And it's unrealistic to expect anyone -- Postal sorters, Tom Brokaw's assistants, and elected representatives alike -- to knowingly expose themselves to a potentially lethal environmental contaminant as a condition of continued employment. Though this "pinprick assault" has (so far) proven to be eminently survivable -- now that we know what we're up against -- this assurance is of little comfort when you're the canary being carried into the mine shaft. (Besides, Hastert, Gephardt et al have much more serious failings to answer for than a show of bipartisanship in the pursuit of self-preservation.)

But Crowley also glosses over an important distinction -- of which the public needs to hear some straight talk from those who are qualified in the areas of communicable diseases or contagious diseases. Technically, yes, anthrax is not contagious -- in that I understand that I needn't worry about contracting it from Tom Brokaw's assistant if she wanders into my office this morning and exhales indiscriminately in my direction. But what, then, is the importance difference between "contagious" in the strictest, medical sense, and in the sense that a person who handled contaminated mail "could have trailed spores"? Either way, those who come into contact would be at some nominally increased risk -- wouldn't they?

Don't look at me. I certainly don't know -- and all I'm seeing is wild speculation. As Crowley says, "A few anthrax spores tracked into the Capitol doesn't necessarily make it a deadly environment" -- but I don't see him volunteering to test that theory on himself, either.


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