Jewish World Review Oct. 19, 2001/ 5 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Wesley Pruden

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They also serve who head for the hills -- MAYBE we're too hard on our frightened congressmen. If they also serve who stand and wait, maybe it's possible for others to serve by getting out of the way.

Certain members of the House of Representatives - they know who they are - no doubt send their wives and daughters downstairs to investigate strange noises at 3 o'clock in the morning, so they're not likely to be much help in fighting off either crazed Arabs brandishing raised scimitars or Bacillus anthracis - arriving in plain brown envelopes. Perhaps we should excuse them for other duties, like stroking the cat or arranging flowers.

Not every Republican member of the House wanted to run. Henry Hyde and Dana Rohrabacher, for two, argued in vain against retreat, the most humiliating display of congressional courage since Union congressmen fled the battlefield at First Manassas, racing back to Washington with their ladies and their picnic hampers flying off in all directions at once.

And not every senator wanted to stay. Nevertheless, senators worked out of their briefcases yesterday, dictating letters to aides armed only with pencil and paper and taking calls on cell phones in makeshift offices in the basement. When someone asked John Breaux of Louisiana whether he had been told not to mix his Cipro with strong drink he replied: "They'll make an exception for the people of Louisiana."

Running out at the first sign of danger would have killed careers in an earlier more robust time, and the decision of House leaders to get out of Dodge in the wake of the arrival of letters sprinkled with germs certainly angered a lot of Americans this time. "WIMPS!" cried the New York Post in a headline in a boxcar typeface. Robert Novak, on CNN-TV's "Crossfire," bluntly asked Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut whether the Republican leadership's decision to cut and run was "yellow." (He said no.) An angry caller to this newspaper, suggesting that courage can be calibrated by partisan identification, urges us to "print a breakdown by political party as to who has won the Medal of Honor in all our wars." Such a comparison wouldn't tell us much, but the suggestion measures the anger of a public asked repeatedly to stand up and be counted, by politicians looking for safe places to hide.

Congressmen already have their gas masks, as Sally Quinn noted pointedly in an essay in The Washington Post, describing the difficulty she had in finding gas masks for her family. Now Congress has its supplies of Cipro, and the rest of us, who don't, can relax. If danger imperils the rest of us, that's just a risk congressmen are willing to take.

Courage, a wise man said, is easy enough in the bright sunshine of early afternoon, with the bands playing and the pretty girls throwing kisses, but now the war on terrorism is more than a month old, and the doubts and dangers (and inconveniences) drowned in the martial airs of the musicians and the endless choruses of "God Bless America" are finally asserting themselves.

And not just in America. In Britain, the stalwart ally that is always there when other friends suddenly remember tasks elsewhere, fear trumps resolve. Boris Johnson, the editor of the Spectator, writing in the London Daily Telegraph, sizes up the mood where anthrax attack is still something to read about in the newspapers:

"Panic stations: What's inside this envelope with the wonky capital letters? Is it a message from an outraged reader, news from a constituent, or is it the spore of some hideous affliction, ready to seed itself in my bronchial cavity like the thing in 'Alien'? Across Fleet Street, hardened hacks are chewing their nails, holding letters up to the light, and then bravely handing them to their secretaries to open. With the air war barely 10 days old, we are seeing the first signs of jitteriness."

The most far-reaching peril is that Congress, tempted to do something, will do the wrong thing at the expense of our freedoms and liberties. Tony Blair's government, though stalwart in standing by us, is even talking about making it a crime to criticize religion, ostensibly to reassure Britain's considerable Muslim population. But the legislation is so broadly drawn that it could be invoked to prohibit the publication of the Bible. (Why shouldn't a Muslim imam, for example, claim insult by publication of Christ's admonition that "I am the truth and the light, and no man comes to the Father but through Me"?)

Republicans were flayed mercilessly in a previous century when, at Newt Gingrich's urging, they shut down the government. Maybe this time we should give Dennis Hastert and his courageous fighting men (and women) our thanks for the memories, and wish them a good trip home. And don't bother to come back.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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