Saturday, September 11, 2021

The End of "Shared" "Sacrifice"

My 9/11 story is not particularly special. I was in high school when the news reached us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Initially, I thought that meant some small hobbyist plane had missed an approach and smacked into the side of the building. The reality -- a full passenger jet (soon to be two) deliberately ramming the building and bringing it down -- didn't cross my mind until TVs went on and rumor became visual. Even though I lived outside DC, and so we definitely knew folks who worked at the Pentagon, I don't know of anyone who knew anyone directly who died or was hurt in the attack. We could see the smoke from across the Potomac river though.

In the days that followed, America was famously united. President Bush's approval rating -- in the doldrums due to the bitterly controversial way he became president in the first place -- skyrocketed. Everybody came together. Democrats basically stopped being an opposition party. Some of that was good. Not all of it. There is a difference between refraining from taking easy political potshots at tough but necessary sacrifices, or not exploiting understandable collective depression and angst for political gain, versus wholesale refusal to debate serious and sometimes dangerous steps taken under the guise of "national security". Nonetheless, it was undeniably inspiring to witness how, in the face of crisis, we'd at least try to unite as a nation and we'd dig in our heels and sacrifice to get us through the dark period.

I have heard some folks ask, hypothetically, what would have happened if, at the outset of COVID, Donald Trump had come out aggressively for masks and vaccines and lockdowns -- demanding a shared sacrifice and seriousness of act and purpose that befits the crisis of a global pandemic. The insinuation is that the polarities would flip -- in our hyperpartisan age, we'd see the GOP proudly endorse and embrace all of the things they now liken to tyrannical Nazism, while Democrats would be found angrily denouncing masks and spreading conspiracies about vaccines.

The first part may be true. The second isn't. We might have seen a small uptick in woo-woo Malibu sorts refusing to get vaccinated because it contains "chemicals" or something. But the experience of 9/11 suggests that the overall liberal response would have been to embrace the seriousness of the moment. Democrats wouldn't oppose vaccines just because Trump was promoting them; they wouldn't foster chaos just to stick it to the "other side". As much as lockdowns suck, they wouldn't have riled up public frustration at a necessary health measure and thrown it in Donald Trump's face.

Over two hundred times as many Americans have died from COVID as died on 9/11. If you count "excess deaths" (which includes people who didn't have COVID but whose deaths nonetheless can be attributed to it -- e.g., because a swamped health care system couldn't give them the care they needed), we're probably around a million deaths -- about a 9/11 a day, from the time pandemic started in earnest.

The degree to which "shared sacrifice" permeated the national mythos after 9/11 makes it all the more despicable how resistant so many Americans have been to anything that even approximates a "sacrifice" in response to the pandemic. I put "sacrifice" in quotes because some of the things GOP pols are literally comparing to the Gestapo are almost comical in their triviality. Wear an extra square foot of fabric on your body. Get a safe vaccine for free. I'm not saying nothing about the pandemic is difficult (parents with younger school-aged children, in particular, have taken a beating we should all acknowledge). But so much of the "sacrifice" we've asked for is so minimal, and yet people refuse to do it.

There is no "shared" sacrifice in America. There is half the country which is willing to do what's needed to get us through a crisis, and another half whose only concern is of themselves. The "unity" after 9/11 was a mirage -- it was the former group agreeing to be united in a crisis with the latter group doing what it wanted to do anyway. When the roles reversed, and the first group asked the second to actual sacrifice just a smidgeon to keep America safe, they refused to do it, and threw perhaps the largest and longest temper tantrum this nation has seen in my lifetime.

It was always despicable. In the shadow of 9/11, it's even more so.

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