America's unsung heroes

Our government bureaucracies are filled with people who help to keep us safe

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After the 9/11 tragedy, Americans became more aware of the heroic efforts of our police and firefighters. These public servants were justly celebrated not only for their selfless efforts on that horrific day, but also for dedicating their careers to protecting the lives of their fellow citizens.

Douglas J. Amy is a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. (

However, these are not the only heroes working for government. Our public bureaucracies are full of "everyday heroes" -- public servants who labor away in anonymity to protect Americans from harm and promote the common welfare.

Consider Dr. Rajiv Jain and his team at the Department of Veterans Affairs' Pittsburgh Healthcare System. They have developed a system to drastically reduce the lethal, antibiotic-resistant infections that patients get in hospitals and that kill more people than AIDS, diabetes or Alzheimer's. His new approach lowered the rate of infection by 70 percent in the surgical unit and has been implemented in all 153 VA hospitals around the country. Countless lives will be saved.

There are tens of thousands of other government employees like Dr. Jain who are toiling away to protect our health, welfare and safety. They include the many inspectors for our state and federal environmental agencies who safeguard our water supplies from dangerous pollutants. Among them are the people in the Consumer Product Safety Commission who recall hundreds of defective products that could do serious harm to us and our families.

The motto of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is "People Saving People." They are doing exactly that every day by conducting automobile crash tests, evaluating child safety seats and recalling unsafe cars.

We are fortunate to have government scientists working in public health agencies who have virtually eliminated dangerous diseases like polio and tetanus, and who are busily engaged in protecting us from new threats like the avian flu.

For the most part, none of these public employees will ever meet you or know your name, but they are working week in and week out to protect your health and welfare.

Unfortunately, we rarely celebrate these everyday heroes. Actually, we often do the opposite -- we treat them with the same disdain we show for everyone who works for the government. We call them "bureaucrats" and stereotype them as lazy, ignorant, rigid and incompetent. They are the butt of jokes, such as: "How many government bureaucrats does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two ... one to screw it in and one to screw it up."

We Americans need to get over this knee-jerk antagonism toward our government and its employees. We need to acknowledge that our public agencies and our public servants have a vital role to play in society, protecting us from the numerous risks and threats that surround us in a modern world. And we need to ungrudgingly pay the taxes that make this important work possible.

The work of these public heroes goes unappreciated partly because it usually goes unseen. When a firefighter saves someone from a burning building, it is front-page news. But when the everyday heroes in our government save us from harm, few people notice.

Why? Because when they do their jobs well, nothing happens to us. We don't get sick from an imported disease, we aren't poisoned by the water we drink, we aren't electrocuted by a faulty appliance, and so on. With nothing bad happening, it is easy to go throughout our lives ignorant of how they are being made much safer by government workers.

Polls show that a majority of Americans believe in angels. But our real guardian angels may be those hundreds of thousands of invisible public servants who show up to work every day dedicated to protecting us from the many dangers that could otherwise end up ruining our lives.

These people deserve our thanks.


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