Washington is a city which diligently goes about reducing human activity in travail to statistics. As a summary form of understanding, statistics pose a challenge to the capacity of human beings for empathy. That estimable quality of the heart and mind is not often tapped by just reciting, for instance, that 100,000 U.S. workers die every year from work-related diseases, or that 50,000 people are killed and nearly 4 million injured yearly on the highways.
This month, one federal agency went beyond statistics. In a report titled, “Auto Crashes: The Repercussions for the American Family,” (obtainable free from the Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C.), The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration studied the devastating human consequences of motor vehicle accidents on the victims and their families. The casualties are only the beginning of the anguish and dislocation.
The authors, Donald Callaway and Charles Drucker of the University of California, after interviewing the unfortunate people, made this observation: “The need for an informed public is critical. Many of the remedies to prevent crashes and injuries–whether reducing the number of drinking drivers or building safer cars–need broad public understanding and support to be viable. Because of our experiences with this initial study, we are beginning a comprehensive assessment of the effects of auto crashes on the American family–how they change traditional family relationships and harm members not Personally involved in the crash. We found that victims and their families can suffer enormous emotional, physical, financial and social disruptions from accidents.”
Their preliminary report contained case studies with such headings as: “Alice: She had to resign from her job,” “Beth: There was no one to help,” “Jack: This just wiped us out,” and “Manuel: His lawyer says he doesn’t have a case.”
It is not likely that Congress will pay much attention to this and similar reports which the health and safety agencies could produce. Not yet, anyhow. For victims are “out” as far as this Congress is concerned. Perpetrators are “in.”
This was the year when the greed or plight of the billionaires overwhelmingly dominated congressional attention. To the extent that any senators and representatives spent time on the problems of victims, it was to harass, undercut, denounce or move to terminate the agencies whose mission is to save lives, stop injuries and prevent disease and fraud.
There are cliques in Congress whose fervor is to get the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, break the Food and Drug Administration, paralyze the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and cripple the Federal Trade Commission. Sen. William Armstrong, R-Colo., and several other Rocky Mountain senators are openly saying they want to destroy OSHA. They ridicule the political impotence of the labor unions to stop their drive.
Even the tired liberals on Capitol Hill are losing their sensitivity as they are wined, dined and given campaign monies by any number of the 15,000 full-time corporate lobbyists plying their trade in Washington.
This ambiance of callousness is not restricted to Congress. It infects or chills the national officialdom in this city. The politicians are not even talking about the poor, much less doing something about the institutionalized poverty in this country. Ringing civil rights and civil liberties speeches are viewed as atavisms–throwbacks to a more naive period. Part of this feeling comes from a horrifically resurgent corporate power in this town that is siphoning off billions of taxpayer dollars while crushing manifestations of a people’s government. The Business Roundtable and other Big Business lobbies have promoted a perception of invincibility about their influence.
Following this elitist-shaped mood are many newspaper columnists based in Washington. They employ what some think to be elegant language to sneer at groups trying to represent victims, or victims trying to have officials hear their voice.
American history goes through these cycles of popular reform and corporate reaction. The ’50s set the stage for the ’60s and the ’60s set the stage for the ’70s.
It would be a foolhardy power elitist who remains complacent about the economic and environmental pressures that are building up in this country. If there is such a person, a visit to Love Canal near Niagara Falls, N.Y., or to any number of chemical waste dumps, recently discovered to be poisoning ground water and exposing families to dangerously toxic substances across the country, should be sobering. For around these dumps and also in the minds, foundries and factories, there are no liberals and there are no conservatives. There are only victims, becoming angrier.