Charlie Harper: Week we'd like to forget

April 23, 2013 

Last week was one that many will want to forget, but few will. It began Monday with a terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon. As this column was being written Friday morning, it was ending with a policeman at MIT and one suspect dead and a Boston suburb shut down searching for a suspect that remained at large.

In between, a fire at a fertilizer plant became an explosion that destroyed much of the town of West, Texas. It was an uncomfortable reminder that when there is trouble, first responders run toward the trouble, not a way from it.

The result is that many firefighters are among the missing and the dead.

Wednesday provided a 9/11-like echo to Boston's Marathon bombing, with letters containing ricin discovered on Capitol Hill and in the White House mail room. I happened to have an appointment in the Russell Senate Office Building at the time the Hart Senate Office building had been evacuated, and the Russell building was being checked for signs of the poison.

It was a bit surreal leaving Union Station and walking toward the commotion near the Capitol. The fact that I chose to continue despite the sirens and approaching Hazmat crews says that the world has changed a lot since September 2001. The abnormal has somewhat become normal. Emergencies and alerts happen, but most continue on.

Inside the building as I sat waiting on my appointment, I listened to the staffers answering the phones in the outer office of a senator. Wednesday, with all of the other news going on, was also the day that the Senate was to vote on amendments to the president's gun control package. The call pace was much higher than usual, and those answering the phones remained on task.

"He's voting no, ma'am. No on the amendment as well …" It was almost as if they were reading a script on an endless loop, but professional and courteous to each caller.

The fact that their answers all seemed to be in the same order to the same questions indicate that the staffers were likely not the only ones who may have been provided a script. Such is the modern activity of civic involvement, and the government response.

But those on the phones do represent the front line of our representative form of government, and are the only face of a senator or representative that many will ever encounter. As such, those who are finally "fed up" enough over an issue and decide to call their elected officials often unleash their anger on these staffers, who work in very small, shared office space. They are generally paid little, especially relative to the high and rising cost of living in D.C. And who on that day were working the phones in a polite and cheerful manner despite the fact that crews were actively working to determine if their workspace was being poisoned by an unknown person.

I'll admit that I was struck by the images I was seeing on Twitter and Facebook of panic and chaos on Capitol Hill, yet sitting inside an office, watching and listening to professionals who come to serve us as the face of representative government every day, often under unusual and trying circumstances. It was obviously lost on many of the callers what was going on around these staffers, but that wasn't their concern, and the staffers neither offered excuses nor left their posts.

There were other strong images to reaffirm faith in humanity. The Boston Marathon runners who went directly from the race to blood banks to make donations show that many will respond when called upon. Acts of heroism in the face of extreme tragedy such as this are easy to spot and should be properly lauded.

But then there are those who serve us in so many capacities, every day, who just do their jobs in zones that are becoming more and more dangerous, to serve a public that is becoming more and more hostile, with thanks few and far between.

Senators and congressmen run for office knowing they will often upset a large number of people they serve. It's part of the job, and they expect and understand much of the reaction. Those who work for them don't get most of the trappings or perks, but do get the lion's share of public contact -- and the brunt of the ire.

The next time you call you elected official, please state your mind as you see fit. But please also remember that those who are talking to you are also just trying to do a job -- and may likely also be trying to figure out if they need to evacuate their office while they're answering your concerns. That's one small part of this past week we would all do well not to forget.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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