The idea of the common good has taken a beating in the past couple of decades in the U.S. We had become obsessed with becoming rich (the quicker, the better) and contemptuous of anything that stood in our way, such as government, with its infernal rules and taxes.
In a few hours on Sept. 11, the attacks that altered the Manhattan skyline also seem to have changed something in the American psyche. For many people, the accumulation of wealth and all-consuming individual desires have been taken down a couple of notches on the list of priorities. Family, friends, colleagues and country enjoy a renewed importance.
Before that deadly Tuesday, it had become fashionable in some political circles to decry government, to mock any attempt to promote the common welfare and to starve public treasuries. After the carnage, we lauded as heroes the low-paid police officers, firefighters, paramedics and numerous public employees who rushed to the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. Many of those dedicated souls who sacrificed their lives would have considered it a rare treat to dine at the tony Windows on the World restaurant atop the trade center.
Now we want government and our public infrastructure to protect us. We want to be secure on airplanes and in our offices. We want help if we need it.
These things will require money as well as commitment. And if we expect our hospitals to deal with terrorist catastrophes, we must expect to shell out a few bucks to make that possible. We have already burdened many of them by repeatedly failing to secure health coverage for all our citizens. Our emergency rooms, already swelling with patients, struggle for their own survival in many cities. Whether they can cope with future large disasters is debatable. The September attacks left few survivors, but new ones might fill the streets with wounded. This is especially true if terrorists escalate to chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
In some cases, hospitals may have to reverse recent trends and increase bed capacity to prepare for attacks. Private payers, which have tried to force providers to be more efficient, are unlikely to finance an increase in standby capacity or massive disaster training and supplies.
Government, meaning taxpayers, will have to pick up a major portion of the tab. This would be a wise use of public money. For those tempted to revert to pre-attack stinginess, the often-ignored preamble to the U.S. Constitution states clearly why we should sacrifice a few dollars: to "provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . ."