Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Cry of the Helpless

It seemed like such a good idea at the start. In that moment of disaster, instead of having to remember a seven digit number of the local police department; instead of having to go through the general dispatcher; instead of having to look up the number in an unfamiliar town -- all you had to do was dial three digits: 9-1-1.

What could be more simple? With the advent of cell phones, even better. Several years ago, I was driving a stretch of interstate and saw, in the opposing lane, a pickup truck tumbling end over end, then rolling into the center median. Without even checking the status of the driver, I immediately pulled over and dialed 9-1-1 on my cell phone. I was quickly transferred to the local operator, and as I described the accident and the mile marker, she informed me that they had already received two prior calls and that help was on the way.

That was what it was for -- to get help to an emergency situation as soon as possible. We are told now that most cities are swamped with 9-1-1 calls, and there is always a shortage of operators. Some have complained of being put on "hold," something you would not expect of an emergency line. Why would this happen? Do they just not care anymore? Evil Republican de-funding? No, none of the above.

The change has come in the American definition of an emergency. What happens today? Someone parks his car on your lawn, you call 9-1-1. Did someone leave graffiti on your fence? You call 9-1-1. "Hello, 911; what is your emergency?"

"Somebody wrote a bad word on my fence!"

"Sir, I'm going to direct you to the following phone number."

"No, this is an emergency! I want the police over here now!"

It happens every day, in every city, minute by minute. We only read about the silliest ones. One woman recently did not get chicken nuggets at McDonalds (they were out, had taken her money, and would not return it, offering instead a substitution -- definitely not good business policy, but not a life and death situation). While in line, she called 9-1-1. Years ago, I had a recording of a woman calling about a similar situation at a drive-up. Whe wanted the police to come make the owner serve her a type of burger that we found out later was made by another franchise.

Then there was the one who was tired; she had to take care of her kids all day. She called 9-1-1 for some relief. Another person wanted to know what time it was. Still another needed a list of hotels with available space in one town. And then, there was the day that President Bush's daughter was with a group in a restaurant, and they ordered alcohol! An astute waiter, recognizing the life-and-death immediacy of the situation, called 9-1-1. He may also have smelled his own fifteen minutes of fame, but whatever the reason, it was seen as an emergency, and the police were notified. Most of the time, they just ask for an ID, and refuse to serve alcohol to a minor, but this was an emergency!

The epidemic of frivolous 9-1-1 calls is symptomatic of a disease that is spreading throughout the American culture: an inability to care for one's self; a total shedding of personal responsibility. When I read Orwell's 1984, I thought that "Big Brother" would be imposed on us some day by a cruel totalitarian regime. I never imagined that he would be welcomed by people who no longer know how to clean up for themselves, blow their own noses, or flush before leaving the stall.

The main problem with Big Government is that it is more than willing to flush for us, because when it's in charge of the flushing, it can also tell us when we need to enter the stall. When Big Government pays for our health care, it can also tell us what care we need, and when. It's a return to childhood, when someone told us when to get up, when to go to bed, when to take a bath, when to dress. Most Americans seem happy to sit in the high chair while Big Brother spoons out carefully pureed food and wipes the stuff we spit up off of our chins.

Now we need the government to get us out of debt. We need them to pay for our medicine and our health care. We need them to find us jobs, and negotiate our salary schedules. We need them to make us fasten our seat belts, and during the last campaign, there was even a hint that the day was coming when Uncle Sam would make us keep our tires inflated properly.

If we are going to continue in this vein, we need to overhaul the outdated emergency system and replace it with a more diverse system of numbers. Of course, we need to hire more operators and pay them scale. We need to install new lines and make sure everyone has a government-provided phone. How about the following?

  • 911 - I'm being murdered or someone I can see is dying
  • 912 - Something/someone is making me very uncomfortable
  • 913 - I'm tired, hungry, or broke
  • 914 - Time and temperature
  • 915 - Complain about bad service
  • 916 - My rights are being violated
  • 917 - I need someone to clean up after me
  • 918 - My diaper needs changing/I need child care
  • 919 - All other government aid.

Or, how about teaching people to do things on their own again? How did we get in touch with the police before the days of 9-1-1? How did we live before the government started taking such good care of us? I don't know, but I sure would like to try again. Maybe the first step would be to ban cell phones, or at least impose a "stupidity tax" on those who keep them glued to their heads, mindlessly droning on, oblivious to the world around them.

I've heard that America was never the same after 9/11. I know they were talking about that day of terrorism on a fateful day in September of 2001. But I think there is another 9/11 that has done more damage to our culture, or at least shined the spotlight on it. That is the mindless idea that someone else can solve all your problems if you dial three simple digits. And that you have a right to have someone do that.

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