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Nine Years Later: Still Thinking About Rubber

09/13/2010 10:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nine years later, and I'm still thinking about rubber.

In the long months of the post-September 11 recovery, amid the blue police barricades everywhere, and the bus stops plastered with "Missing!" posters, and the fires spewing out toxic dust, New Yorkers debated what the attacks meant for life in our city, and the future of our country.

There were those who said we all should just get used to the military policing our streets (in spite of Posse Comitatus), and to our buses and subways blowing up once in awhile.

Others reminded us that we'd been attacked before. We triumphed in the past because every American responded to the call for action; if we banded together now against Al Qaeda in the same concerted way we did then, we could preserve not only our safety but our democracy.

In a city where volunteers drove 1,000 miles to help us out, but we all went home to wipe a fresh layer of ash off our windowsills, it was hard to know which vision to believe in.

But one bit of history gave me hope. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the moment Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins revealed to the President and his Cabinet that we were at risk of losing World War II because of one critical shortage -- rubber. We had a five-month supply, maybe six.

"The shortage of rubber was particularly worrisome, since rubber was indispensable ... if armies were to march, ships sail, and planes fly," Goodwin writes. "From stethoscopes and blood-plasma tubing to gas masks and adhesive tape, the demand for rubber was endless." And we didn't have enough.

Did President Franklin Roosevelt order the invasion of a small rubber-rich nation? Mint money to buy up all of Canada's rubber reserves? Pass tax cuts for rubber producers? No. He turned to the American people.

In June 1942, he laid out the problem in one of his fireside chats, and announced a national rubber drive, asking everyone to clear out all the rubber they could find in their attics and tool sheds and garages, and to cart it down to their local filling stations.

The response, Goodwin writes, surpassed the Administration's most extravagant hopes -- Americans increased the national rubber stockpile by 400 tons -- seven pounds for every man, woman and child.

Meanwhile, the nation's chemists and manufacturers were devising a way to use farm alcohol and petroleum to create synthetic rubber. And they, too, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. One year later, our production of synthetic rubber jumped from 12,000 tons to 308,000 tons -- an increase of more than 2,000 percent.

And that's not all -- we conserved, too. President Roosevelt formed a blue-ribbon commission to "recommend such civilian actions as necessary to ensure an adequate supply of rubber for the armed forces," Goodwin writes. Their solution? Gas rationing. It was the best way -- no, the only way -- to save enough rubber to make a difference. Though it was unpopular, Roosevelt instituted the ration. And Americans respected it. They formed car pools, rode buses, cut milk delivery to every other day. They walked.

More than anything else, it was the American response to the WWII rubber shortage that buoyed me in the fall of 2001. I read Goodwin's book over and over again, imagining kids cutting down tire swings, and chemists working overtime in labs, and people walking to work, all to make sure that the nation had the rubber it needed to win.

Surely, I thought, we could confront the thorny and frightening problem of Al Qaeda and terrorism on our soil with the same concerted response, the same resourcefulness, ingenuity and sacrifice.

Americans were eager to be called. They flocked to Ground Zero, offering to help clean up, search for survivors, whatever we needed. They jammed the Red Cross switchboard for weeks, calling to volunteer. They donated $2.8 billion to disaster relief. Two point eight billion dollars.

But the national call to action never came. Downtown, the NYPD started allowing only ironworkers and rescue workers through the barricades. President George W. Bush visited Ground Zero, talked about war and called up 50,000 reservists. To the rest of us he said, "Go shopping." Mayor Rudy Giuliani echoed him. "Go back to normal," he said. To work. To school. To the theater. Shopping.

While there was some consolation in seeing Macy's reopen and school kids schlepping their backpacks up and down Broadway, it felt wrong somehow to not be reaching out, trying to pull our city back to its feet. It felt like lifting your legs while your mother vacuumed around you and calling it "helping." Only instead of your mother cleaning up your toast crumbs, it was firefighters looking for bodies, workers looking for jobs, residents trying to get the grit out of their apartments. And the specter of international terrorism looming over us all.

Most of us, we just couldn't buy a shirt we didn't need and call it "helping."

Nine years later, that grand mobilization has yet to materialize. Even the simplest, most straightforward actions became debacles. Congressional Republicans keep sabotaging the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which would provide medical care to first responders and innocent bystanders who were sickened by the toxic smoke that spewed all over downtown. New York's repeated requests for help replacing the radio system that failed police and firefighters on September 11th keep getting rejected.

And Friday, two of the people who wrote the 9/11 Report released a study that says we're not doing what needs to be done to fight Al Qaeda and terrorism abroad.

What do we have instead? A 9-year-old war in Afghanistan; a vitriolic protest over an Islamic community center; a proposed Koran burning in Florida; and a case of national amnesia about the difference between Al Qaeda, (who actually attacked us) and Islam, (a religion with about a billion adherents).

Is it too late? Is it crazy to think there's still time for the 21st Century rubber drive, a national effort that would starve Al Qaeda (and other fundamentalist groups like it) of its money, wreck its brand, and drain away its membership?

Maybe. Then again...

As I've been thinking of FDR and the rubber drive, I've been thinking, too, about a card table on the corner of 96th Street and Broadway.

One woman, (whose name I've forgotten but who owned a very playful 100-pound Great Pyrenees) needed to help, and like 7 million other New Yorkers, she couldn't get through to the Red Cross, or the Salvation Army, or St. Vincent's Hospital, (which was the primary emergency room treating the injured.)

So she printed from the Red Cross website a list of supplies needed at Ground Zero, took a folding table down to the street, and hung the list on a pole. And she waited.

Like FDR and the rubber drive, my neighbor with the playful Pyrenees wasn't prepared for the onslaught of donations her request unleashed. When rain was forecast, and the Red Cross said the workers needed ponchos, she collected thousands of ponchos. When the Salvation Army said it needed energy drinks, people emptied the shelves of every grocery store in the neighborhood. They emptied every Gap of its t-shirts, every Duane Reade of its bandages, every bodega of its granola bars.

When, after three days, donation stations like the one on 96th Street filled the parking lot of the Jacob Javits Convention Center with supplies, the city asked us all to please, please stop. Reluctantly, we did.

Since then, I think, we've all been waiting for the next Harry Hopkins or FDR to stand up and post the next list of What's Needed Now. We've heard mostly silence. And now that silence is being filled by anti-Muslim sloganeering and Koran burnings.

But the lady with the Playful Pyrenees didn't wait for someone to tell her to take her card table to the sidewalk. She just did it.

Nor did Susan Retik wait to be invited to help Afghan widows start their own businesses. Or Greg Mortenson wait to be invited to build schools in the most remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Nine years later, maybe it's time for us all to be our own Harry Hopkins, to organize our own version of the 1942 rubber drive, for each of us to deploy our resourcefulness, ingenuity, sacrifice. (Don't know where to start? See below.)

It is now, as Eleanor Roosevelt said in 1940, "...no ordinary time, no time for weighing anything except what we can best do for the country as a whole. ... This responsibility is only carried by a united people who love their country and who will live for it ... to the fullest of their ability."

The fullest of our ability. Yes, maybe it's not too late, after all.

***

I want to serve my country full-time.