If anything should have forged a sense of unity in the United States, it’s this coronavirus cataclysm, a challenge as daunting as any since the Second World War. Americans are much admired for their dynamic spirit, and the tremendous wellspring of unity, patriotism and determination they demonstrate in times of trauma.
Think of the aftermaths of the 9/11 catastrophe, the Oklahoma City domestic-terror bombing, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Cuban missile crisis. Those events were larger than politics; partisanship was swept aside. When 52 Americans were held captive in the Tehran embassy in 1979, the show of patriotism was immense. I lived in Washington at the time, and you could feel it and see it on the streets: Americans tied yellow ribbons around trees to symbolize their determination to win the hostages’ safe release, while Walter Cronkite ended every one of his nightly CBS newscasts by citing the number of days they had been held.
In crises, presidents had healing, comforting words. Here was Ronald Reagan, after the Challenger tragedy: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'”
Last Sunday, on the 25th anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma bombing that left 168 dead, Bill Clinton wrote in The Oklahoman newspaper about what that experience could teach us in confronting today’s pandemic. He spoke of the United States “shouldering the losses as one” – something, he said, which must be done today, and “for as many tomorrows as it takes.”
In the last month alone, a staggering 55,000 Americans have slipped the surly bonds of earth because of COVID-19. That’s as many deaths as there were over the course of the Vietnam War.
But stunningly, there is little patriotism or unity today. There are no inspiring words from the Oval Office to bring Americans together. By contrast, there is mainly rancour and infighting, driven in the main by political leadership.
Americans should be leading the world in this fight, not trailing it. After the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 which killed more than 225,000 people, the White House tapped two former presidents, Mr. Clinton and George H.W. Bush, to lead a giant bipartisan relief effort. Nothing like that is even imaginable today.
Instead of bringing Americans together, the pandemic has become another flashpoint in the country’s culture war. Its president has applied the only strategies he knows when confronted with a threat: attack, divide and belittle. He blames the media, the Democrats, the World Health Organization. Instead of yellow ribbons, Americans get a daily diet of smears and temper tantrums on Twitter.
By contrast, other countries are coming together. While there have been instances of partisan bickering in Canada, the federal government and the provinces have set partisan politics aside. Rather than talk of western separatism, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is sending surplus medical supplies to British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.
There is a Team Canada; there is no Team America. While there’s a consensus north of the border about a go-slow approach to reopening the country, the U.S. is wracked by greater conflict, with Republicans favouring a quicker end to the lockdown than Democrats.
The political right fears that the cure will become economic suicide, making it worse than the disease itself. The toll of a deep economic depression is seldom spoken of in terms of lives lost, but it’s not to be discounted. Following the 2008 global economic crisis, the authoritative medical journal, The Lancet, released a study showing that the crisis was associated with more than 260,000 additional deaths from cancer alone.
Framing the lockdown argument around freedom, conservatives say the people, with some exceptions, have abided by distancing and quota rules with respect to businesses that have been opened. Why shouldn’t they be trusted to do the same with the opening of more commerce?
There was bound to be partisanship in dealing with this calamity. But at a time like this, the U.S. should, as in times past, be saturated in compassion, unity and purpose.
Instead, division and distrust has badly hindered its war effort against the virus. Instead, its leader has become the butt of ridicule for his talk of ingesting disinfectants as a virus cure. Instead, in the nation that Ronald Reagan described as a shining city on a hill, the spirit it always demonstrated is no longer to be found.
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