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The Other Side of Fear

The attempt by terrorists to spread anthrax by mail has provided a second challenge for Americans to calmly take precautions in public life and guard against any future acts, which are designed to instill fear.

That challenge requires rethinking the basics of how to run such public entities as the air transport system, security forces - and now one of the most venerable institutions, the US Postal Service, whose offices are in every American community.

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Indeed, a reinvigoration of government agencies has begun, as the public trust in government has risen since Sept. 11 and officials scramble to better protect the public through improved procedures, personnel, and coordinaton. Much of the response still remains a "work in progress," as a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control admitted after the deaths of two postal workers.

The nation is on a war footing, and as after previous wars, many institutions and old ways of doing things are bound to be transformed. The rapid moves to reform the military and intelligence agencies to better prevent terrorism are signs of this positive retooling.

As airlines and at least three postal facilities were shut down temporarily, a window opens for citizens to consider alternatives to more-efficient and possibly less-costly methods and habits. Was the nation too reliant on airline service? Rail service is getting a needed boost. A fledgling, but now sagging, e-commerce industry may revive, along with video conferencing and telecommuting, as people move away from using the mail or from flying.

In its own way, the public already has taken part in these efforts, too, revitalizing a commitment to the common good. Neighbors coming together, who may have lived next door for years and not spoken, now are introducing themselves. Through such actions comes a stronger, healthier sense of "we're all in this together," providing the social glue that can help revive all public institutions.

Vigilance does not only mean keeping an eye out for danger, but keeping an eye out for others - even the neighborhood mail carrier.

Once the fear is long past, Americans will remember these days as a time when they were able to rebuild many of the common, vital institutions they too easily took for granted.