In my column for CNN, I discuss heroes who have prevented disasters yet go unremembered:
Imagine that some member of Congress back in the 1990s had devoted himself or herself to toughening America against terrorism. He or she had introduced legislation to require airlines to harden their cockpit doors. After years of work, he or she at last prevailed and the new law went into effect sometime in early 2000. The 9/11 plot would have been thwarted without any American ever knowing that the plot had existed.
Question: Would we now remember that imaginary member of Congress as a person of wisdom and foresight who averted a national disaster?
Hardly. In a world in which 9/11 never happened, the people who prevented it would have gone unremembered and unthanked. Or worse. It’s very possible that they would have been laughed at as tedious people who invested ridiculous amounts of energy against a probably imaginary threat — the way, say, some laughed at the people who solved the Y2K problem about that same time.
Of all the unfairnesses in politics, the greatest unfairness is how little we reward the supreme public service: “to provide against preventable evils,” in the famous phrase of the British politician, Enoch Powell.
The politicians who act after disaster reap the gratitude of the nation, like Rudy Giuliani amid the rubble of New York City.
Officials whose warnings are ignored at least gain the credit of their prophecy if the warnings come to pass.
But those who successfully mobilize public action in good time? How would we even know who they are? How do we separate the wise from the unwise, the genuinely visionary from the cranks and hysterics? For every Sheila Bair urging early action about subprime mortgages, there are a hundred Glenn Becks urging Americans to stockpile nonhybrid seeds against the coming global apocalypse.