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FIRST CRACK IN OUR UNITY: CLASS DIVIDE

Peons become fodder for the Grim Reaper while the VIPs grab every protection they can.

Sound like the division of labor in the Taliban or al-Qaida?

No doubt.

But some of those outlaws are probably looking at Washington today and saying the same thing.

They're probably looking at the difference between how Congress treated its own and how the "little people" at the U.S. Postal Service were treated -- or not treated -- in the face of anthrax contamination.

And if Osama bin Laden and his U.S.-based operatives were indeed behind the anthrax attacks -- something yet to be proved -- they got just what they wanted. They got the first real crack in U.S. solidarity when it comes to support for Washington's handling of homeland defense. And they created it with a major assist from Washington itself.

While there have been protests against the bombing of Afghanistan and Monday morning grumbling about airline security, that's nothing compared with the anger of thousands of postal workers at Washington's Brentwood Road mail-processing center. That represents the first real backlash against government's response to terrorism's aftermath.

It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out why. Government officials knew that the anthrax-laced letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle -- the same letter that caused House members to flee for cover -- was postmarked in Trenton, N.J., where a mail carrier had already contracted anthrax.

The link between the letter mailed in Trenton and then received on Capitol Hill? The Brentwood facility.

Yet while health officials fell all over themselves to test on the Hill and pass out anthrax-fighting drugs to Congress and its staff, the postal workers got nothing.

"They even tested the policemen's dogs" on Capitol Hill, said Patricia Johnson, president of the postal workers union there. "Their dogs were more important than the postal workers."

Now two Brentwood postal employees are dead, and two more have contracted the usually fatal inhaled form of anthrax. The rest are scared and angry, and a national unity that has been remarkably solid so far stands threatened by perceptions of a double standard of treatment.

Who can blame the postal workers? The 4,000 at the Brentwood facility make an average of $32,000 a year. That's little more than expense-account money on Capitol Hill.

And for those prone to conspiracy theories, the contrasting media images of Brentwood postal workers -- 98 percent of whom are black -- being ignored while white Capitol Hill inhabitants got Cipro will only breed more paranoia.

Johnson says the workers aren't focusing on the racial difference, "they're just concerned about being treated like second-class citizens." She points instead to "political impact" as a possible explanation for the disparate treatment.

Either way, it's just what the doctor ordered -- if the doctor's name is bin Laden and creating dissension is the goal.

Even as they acknowledged mistakes, federal authorities said the postal employees weren't treated earlier because officials didn't know that anthrax could escape from a sealed envelope. They note that the postmaster general himself even visited Brentwood, thinking that no anthrax had been released.

But "Nightline" producers this week illustrated just how easily it could happen, showing how puffs of powder could escape from a sealed envelope -- for instance, if there were pinprick holes in it.

Federal officials never considered that. The terrorists did. And the possibility that they know things that U.S. officials don't only further undermines the confidence Americans need to have in government right now and cracks the sense of solidarity even more.

And it all might have been avoided if the postal workers had been treated as if they were PIPs -- politically important people.

It's a tough call drawing the line between prudent precaution and alarmist overkill. But it shouldn't be drawn based on whom the victims might be -- or in a way that even allows for that perception.

Divide-and-conquer is a wartime strategy as old as war itself. While Washington tries to divide al-Qaida from ordinary Afghans, it shouldn't unwittingly be dividing us from one another at the same time.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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