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The number will never again have the same meaning for any of us. 911. Once only a telephone number, easily memorized. Now a date, all too difficult to forget. Never in the history of this nation—in the history of any nation—have so many innocent lives been snuffed out by such a single cold act of cruelty.

The initial impact of this horrible act of terror was played out on television screens across the globe, followed all too quickly by the horrific collapse of the towers, again captured by TV cameras. But now there are clouds of consequence that have come rolling out of this catastrophe, like the frightening volcanic clouds that tore down the streets of lower Manhattan when the buildings collapsed. Some of those consequences have received wide play in the media. We have cried before our television sets at the heart-rending sight of a small boy at a prayer service holding a picture of his father in his fireman's suit, one of the heroes who, in trying to save lives, lost his own. We have weeped at tales of children who were never picked up at their day care centers because their mothers or fathers never came home from the office, and never would.

But as the clouds of consequences continue to roll, we may not see all the stories of pain and loss that this crime against humanity has caused and will continue to cause, for months at least and perhaps for years. Every airline in the nation—even the ones that thought they might have a profit this year—will endure a huge loss in revenue and ridership. Bad news for stockholders, bad news for managers sweating their future with the company. Far worse news for the more than 100,000 employees who now are thrust off their jobs and into a sagging economy that doesn't have the strength right now to generate new jobs for these people. Some will at least receive severance packages (though some will not, unfortunately).

The statistics have already been reported in the news. We who do bankruptcy, however, know all too well the pain and loss behind that statistic. How will the mortgage get paid next month? And if it can't be paid, what then? No home, just in time for the holidays? Needless to say, the credit card bills will pile up, unpaid (and suddenly mushroom thanks to a combination of high interest rates, late charges and the dark magic of compounding). Savings will shrink or disappear. Those whose nest eggs were in the stock market have already seen that resource dry up and blow away.

If only it were just the airline employees. If only it were just 100,000 jobs. An employee of a rental car agency told me the other day that he said goodbye to 10 of his friends who were laid off at his airport office alone. Hotels and restaurants are suffering too—as are the low-paid employees that such services routinely hire. When low-paid people get laid off, their options are even more bleak. Will they all be able to get new low-wage jobs at Wal-Mart? I doubt it—especially because, as consumer confidence lags, so does consumer spending. And that hurts Wal-Mart and other retail stores.

We are rescue workers. We use our skill, our patience, our wisdom and sometimes even our courage to put people back on their feet, companies back in business and assets back to work to create jobs.

It's going to be rough out there for quite some time. Recent record bankruptcy filings are likely to be but a prelude to a storm tide of new bankruptcy cases at all levels—from consumers trying to save their homes to companies trying to find a way to survive until the economy comes back. Call 911.

Chilling, isn't it? The flip phrase, the reaction to crisis, is no longer flip. It's grim. It's haunting. But I am not being flip. Far from it. I am putting out the clarion call. For we too are rescue workers.

I will not dare to suggest that what we do comes even close to the extraordinary sacrifice that firefighters and policemen made on that fateful day. I know some firefighters. I know that they know that whenever they are called to an emergency they face death, yet they answer the call anyway. None of us, when we are called to do our duty, will be called upon to make such a sacrifice.

But make no mistake about it. We are rescue workers. We use our skill, our patience, our wisdom and sometimes even our courage to put people back on their feet, companies back in business and assets back to work to create jobs. Some of us are lawyers and accountants and turnaround managers, whose task it will be to look just a little beyond the short-term advantage toward a longer-term goal that helps not only our own clients but also heals a problem and so aids the nation's health. Some of us are judges, whose task it will be to be wise and patient—and to resist at all costs the sin of self-importance. Some of us are members of Congress, whose task it will be to look beyond personal political advantage and partisan politics and, yes, refuse to be seduced by the songs of special interests. Members of Congress, especially, will need to be wise in the choices that they make when it comes to bankruptcy reform, because in these terrible times, the wrong move could hurt a lot of people who have already been deeply hurt directly or indirectly by terrorists from abroad.

Some years ago, we enacted significant welfare reform laws, designed to shift much of the responsibility for dealing with poverty to the states. Some states have picked up the gauntlet, often at some considerable cost, and have systems in place to help those who may be thrust on hard times. Some states have not, choosing instead to put their money elsewhere, leaving the poor to fend for themselves. There has been talk recently that private charities might pick up the slack, and many charities have responded. But charities have millions to spend on problems that require billions to solve. The result is that when the economy takes a hit, the victims are forced to fall back on other backstops—or end up living in their cars. For better or for worse, one of those important backstops is our bankruptcy system. It allows us to spread out catastrophic loss throughout the system. When extraordinary events inflict those losses, it makes no sense to "blame" the loss on the victims in an effort to avoid having to share the cost of the loss. Everyone needs to help shoulder the burden, share the pain. Today, especially, this is no longer a question of fairness, or equality. It is a question of national interest. All of us must be more like the firefighters who helped people down the stairs of the World Trade Center.

Call it an act of patriotism—each of us doing our small part to heal our nation to help us get back on our feet, refusing to be cowed into submission by cowardly acts of terror. We are rescue workers for the victims of the economic catastrophe that has been one of the bitter consequences of the terrorists' crimes. We do our part.

Journal Date: 
Thursday, November 1, 2001

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