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Life and Mobilization Versus Liberty and the Pursuit of Death

 

Give me liberty or give me death. – Patrick Henry

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – Declaration of Independence

 

On the 4th of July 2020, how can we recognize true American patriots? No matter how many flags are waved or used to decorate clothing, the legitimate patriots will be wearing a mask across the nose and mouth.

Medical experts are bracing for an outbreak of irresponsibility like the celebrations of Memorial Day that set off uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in our largest states. Aggressive patriots are shouting “Give me liberty! I refuse to wear a mask – it’s my constitutional right!” These are phony constitutionalists who are really saying: “I am determined to do what I want to do, and I don’t care if it kills people.” They forget that Patrick Henry was not claiming liberty as a right to cause the death of fellow citizens.

Thomas Jefferson enshrined liberty in the Declaration of Independence, the very reason for celebrating the 4th of July. Todays phony patriots are beating the drum for liberty and pursuit of happiness at the expense of life. You would think they might figure out that selfish liberty and happiness is the opposite of what Jefferson meant if they cause death. After all, Jefferson put life at the head of the list.

This annual celebration of independence comes as the Trump Era reached a low point equaled only by James Buchanan who did nothing as Southern states formed the Confederacy. The President and Vice President refuse to wear masks in public, openly undermining official guidance issued by the administration. They praise those who insist on the constitutional right not to observe guidelines from the CDC and other public health officials. They have organized political events that violate official policy in locations where the epidemic is running amuck. How can anyone refuse to wear masks when the consequence is to knowingly spread death to supporters, their friends and family?

If Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, or Dwight Eisenhower were president today, they would surely have acted in time to prevent the horrific impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. They would have faced up to facts, relied on the best scientific advice, and immediately mobilized the country for war against an invisible enemy. Our national experience during World War II, with its remarkable level of mobilization, provides a dramatic contrast with the absence of leadership under an anti-president.

Mobilization and Leadership. There are still survivors of World War II in our midst. Their stories of extreme sacrifice to save the world from fascist and communist totalitarianism puts the Trump Era to shame. What are the important differences between a time that made our nation proud and our current low point in national history?

First is the difference in HOW the nation confronted a danger to survival. The industrial and social power of America were mobilized to maximum capacity. Consumer manufacturing was transformed into production of weapons and supplies for military use. Adequate numbers of troops were ensured by conscription. Those not serving in the military were called on to forego normal consumer goods, work in factories to replace those called into the military and buy government bonds to finance the war. During four-and-one-half years the entire nation sacrificed individual liberty and pursuit of happiness while 418,500 Americans gave their lives.

American governments learned the importance of mobilization during the Civil War and World War I. The cost in life was great in both cases – 620,000 in the Civil War and 116,516 in WWI. Both wars also featured economic and social limitations as the public responded to calls for sacrifice.

A second difference is that, even as public opinion resisted getting involved in war, American presidents made sure the country was ready and prepared strategies to implement without delay. When war became necessary, presidential leadership helped galvanize national effort and build public support for necessary sacrifices.

However, there was an embarrassing failure of mobilization and leadership in 1918-1920 as an influenza pandemic caused 50 million deaths worldwide and 650,000 deaths in the United States. The same president who led the nation in WWI failed to acknowledge war with an invisible enemy as more Americans died in two years than in four years of civil war.

Following WWII, the danger of pandemics was recognized as the Center for Disease Control and then the World Health Organization were formed to prevent global epidemics. Scientists have been expecting the sudden emergence of powerful viruses. Until COVID-19, the record of the two preeminent health agencies had been outstanding.

Emergence of a powerful new disease coincided with the lowest point in American leadership since Abraham Lincoln. Three years into the Trump Era, the United States had relinquished international leadership as the Trump administration systematically replaced scientific expertise with unqualified partisans, attacked traditional allies, and sought the favor of corrupt governments. Even worse, the president ignored daily intelligence briefings and consistently worked to undermine intelligence agencies for three years so that warnings of a pandemic were ignored when they appeared in briefings. Refusing to mobilize industry or the commitment of the nation, President Trump has led the attack on scientific information. Responsibility was passed to governors as the president broadcast criticisms of leadership efforts from the sidelines.

The quantitative cost of presidential failure has been more than 120,000 deaths from March to June 2020. The significance of this number is clear when it is compared to 116,516 lost in WWI, 58,209 in Korea, and 36,516 in Vietnam. Fighting brutal wars has been less costly than refusing to acknowledge or fight an invisible enemy.

Flunking the Easy Test. Our present failure to mobilize the American people becomes more distressful when one considers how easy this crisis is when compared with two world wars or with the far more difficult crisis that is rapidly approaching. Yes, the pandemic is relatively easy. If we limit physical contact, stay away from groups, follow sanitary procedures, and wear a mask in public, then a dangerous virus can be contained within 6 months. Governments in South Korea, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany have accomplished that task. Our government, like those of our allies, is capable of meeting the economic challenge to our citizens and businesses while work proceeds on a vaccine to overcome the perennial threat of this disease. Short-term sacrifices are relatively easy, especially with the prospect of a vaccine in less time than required by our major wars.

There is a far more difficult crisis on the horizon, for our industrial-capitalist society is bringing on planetary disaster that will not be short in duration or solved with something as easy as a vaccine. When facing the pandemic, our leadership became deranged as Americans tolerated an anti-president and numerous governors who followed his example. Our current mental health problem in leadership – which has been matched by self-destructive public behavior – continues the way our nation has responded to decades of warning that ecological collapse is approaching.

During this pandemic, a tsunami of death has been overwhelming our medical first responders, generating post-traumatic stress equivalent to the experience of those who survived the towers on 9/11. Physical consequences and mental health problems will follow those who survive the virus, their families, and those who treated them. Such is the long-term cost of failed leadership of an easier test than the one on the horizon.

Choosing Life First. Even now there is hope if leaders emerge who mobilize national support and persevere through nature’s one-two punch that threatens life on planet Earth. Too often Americans wait for a disaster – a Pearl Harbor or 9/11 – before making the sacrifices now required by a pandemic and an overheated planet.

Let’s make July 4, 2020 a landmark in turning around two public health catastrophes. Celebrate by wearing masks, keeping a distance from others, and preserving life. After victory over public health threats, we can enjoy more liberty and pursuit of happiness.

 

Edward G. Simmons is a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who teaches history at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is a Bible scholar, Unitarian Christian, and Sunday School teacher in a Presbyterian Church. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible and two chapters in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Christian Evangelicals on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald J. Sider.

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