Among my best experiences at the Senate was working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to have pictures of missing children included in congressional newsletters. I was the point person to work out the details in the Senate. There was a similar program in the House. You know the kinds of photos I’m talking about; you’ve seen them on milk cartons, grocery bags, and in envelopes of coupons. The idea was that a picture of one child would be printed on all the newsletters mailed from the Senate in a week. That represented a considerable volume and a lot of exposure at no significant additional cost to anyone. A mass-mailing by a single Senator could amount to millions of pieces of mail. The one child a week approach was based on two things the Center knew about recoveries. First, no child had ever been recovered in the same State in which abducted, and, second, the best chance of recovery was within the first days, even hours, after abduction. So, essentially, the Senate and House were part of an orchestrated campaign of nationwide publicity, through all the Center’s channels of dissemination, of one very recently abducted child. Participation by Senators was, of course, voluntary, but most agreed to participate and to have pictures in their newsletters that were selected by the Center, in conjunction with local enforcement agencies (which vetted the claims of abduction) and provided directly to the Senate print shop.
What a great idea, you say. Who could be against such a thing? Surprise! It wasn’t long before the first letter came in that was something like this: “Senator so-and-so. You scumbag. How dare you help save children from [State other than the State the Senator was from] when there are missing children from your very own [Senator’s State].” And worse than that, of course, and sometimes with expressions of racial hostility thrown in for good measure. For a while, Senators tried to hold the line by answering such letters with reasoned explanations of how the program worked. It was no use. The director of the Center’s photo distribution program and I hoped and prayed for an instance of a recovery based on a sighting specifically related to having seen a photo in a Senate newsletter. Our plan was to have a joint press conference with the Senator from the State from which the child was abducted and the Senator from the State in which recovered and, if different, the Senator whose newsletter was the basis of the sighting. But we could never definitively tie a recovery to a Senate newsletter. In the end the hostility was more than Senators could withstand, especially when challengers in reelection campaigns could use as an issue that the Senator did not care anything about the missing children in his or her own State. There were no positives to participation and some weighty negatives. The Center bowed to the inevitable and acquiesced in the desire from those offices that didn’t opt out completely to run pictures of children from their own State. Rather than a single picture of a single recently abducted child receiving nationwide publicity, Senate offices were given portfolios of pictures of children from their State and they made their own selections, based on lots of considerations irrelevant to potential for recovery. Often these children had been missing for many years and the chances of recovery were near zero. To the untrained eye, the program looked the same: pictures had been published and pictures were still being published. But the change in the method of selection of pictures changed it from a program with some potential for helping, to one that was just promotional material.
It is an axiom of capitalism since at least Adam Smith that the common good is best advanced if each individual is free to pursue his own interests. For the most part that is true, and personally, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I too want to be free to do what I want, when I want, the way I want as much as possible. But this little example indicates that choosing what’s best for oneself can be decidedly unhelpful to a common purpose.
”Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” BCP page 823.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC