TREMBLE, oh Washington.
Beware, oh lawyers and bankers. Virginians are rebelling again, and just like 125 years ago, the fight is over rights and the power of the federal government to make sure everybody has them.
The opening shots of this civil war have been fired over what social workers call "The Agnes Syndrome." It seems that after the 1972 hurricane called Agnes, victims showed up at government offices "and expected to be handed a check," according to Leo Cutter, a disaster specialist sent to the Shenandoah Valley after the flood on Nov. 4 of this year.
Cutter, who works for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, expected to see the syndrome repeated. After all, this was the worst flood in the valley's history. He armed himself with plenty of government checks for everyone.
But something went wrong. "So many people, especially the Mennonites, won't come in. They say others are worse off," a puzzled Cutter said.
"I've never found so many people reluctant to ask for help," said a Red Cross volunteer.
What's going on here? Don't these people understand that reaching for a government check whenever anything goes wrong is their right? The very best among us have set the example -- oil men, bank presidents, defense contractors, the Chrysler Corporation.
By 1985 this is the American way, and on it depend whole government agencies, not to mention Washington law firms, French restaurants and real-estate prices. Think of the disaster in this town if America turned against The Agnes Syndrome.
The rebellion was more than passive resistance. When the principal of the Buchanan, Va., Elementary School sent notes home with students, advertising the government handouts, their parents fired back a volley of their own -- they sent their kids back to school with donations of clothing for the needy, along with money in bills and coins that filled a jar outside the principal's office.
"You paid your taxes, you are entitled," Cutter tried to tell these people, whose town had been torn apart by a 38-foot flood crest on the James River.
Maybe he was just confusing them. They're so used to hearing the federal government saying the reverse to people like corporate executives or diplomats tearing up their parking tickets: "You don't pay any taxes but you're entitled anyway."
Not only do these Virginians refuse to act like proper victims, but so far they haven't hired lawyers to file even one multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the government weather service or against the Commonwealth of Virginia for letting them live in houses so close to the river.
The biggest threat comes from people like Dwight McDilda, who said he planned to reopen the Hotel Botetourt without accepting any loans because "I don't believe in credit. I'll do the best I can with what I've got."
The bankers and credit-card purveyors -- along with the president of the United States and his record budget deficits -- must shiver to think even one person is left who believes such a thing.
We don't have to silence McDilda, but we might think about putting him in a museum, the way the anthropologists put Ishi -- the last truly aboriginal American Indian -- in a San Francisco museum and had him live out his life there around the turn of the century.
"Poor thing," we'd say to our children, as we brandished credit cards at McDilda through the glass. "He doesn't even seem to see them."
Or maybe we could force him to accept the loan. But then, he'd probably insist on paying it back on time, setting a dangerous precedent for impoverished nations around the world, not to mention the occasional American corporation or city.
Tish Kurtz, of the Red Cross, was reported as saying she was "deeply impressed by the pride and independence of these people." No doubt she was trying to put the best face on a bad situation. A whole way of life is imperiled. Not theirs, but ours. When the federal government's most important constituents are victims, not voters, we need The Agnes Syndrome to keep things going. What if everybody started acting like those rebels in Buchanan, Va.?