The country hit a grim milestone yesterday, when the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus ticked past the 100,000 mark. Far more Americans have died of this virus than the number who perished in the Vietnam War, the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq war and the Sept. 11 attacks — combined. It’s as if everyone in Albany, N.Y., or Flint, Mich., died over the course of a season.
Beyond their sheer size, what has been most striking about these staggering numbers has been the silence.
America has a long tradition of honoring its fallen. We award Gold Stars and build monuments, we stand for moments of silence and sit at memorial services. These rituals give the country a way to confront tragedy on a grand scale, building a sense of common purpose for the challenges ahead.
But in the face of these deaths, Americans have been left to their trauma. To mourn, alone.
While there has been an outpouring of public gratitude — nightly applause for health workers, food sent to hospitals, masks sewn and shipped across the country — there has been a remarkable lack of public grief.
In part, the silence reflects the nature of this illness. Death happens alone, the last gaze of a loved one often just a tinny image framed by the blue light of a computer screen. Funerals, if they happen, are private. Bodies pile up in crematories, cemeteries and refrigerated trucks.
But moments of national crisis also reveal truths about our leaders.
President Trump has long shirked his role as consoler in chief, preferring to focus on the country’s “transition to greatness” and “incredible” days ahead. After months of deaths, he ordered flags to be lowered at half-staff last week, under pressure from Democratic leaders. But his schedule this week contains no special commemoration of the 100,000 lives lost.
His only comment about the “very sad milestone” came in a tweet this morning, where he offered his “heartfelt sympathy & love for everything that these great people stood for & represent. God be with you!”
While Mr. Trump has the biggest bully pulpit, he doesn’t have the only one. Last night, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, released a video address telling the bereaved that “this nation grieves with you.”
The staging resembled a traditional Oval Office address, meant to contrast the former vice president’s capacity for empathy with the current president’s. “To those hurting, I’m so sorry for your loss,” Mr. Biden said. “Take some solace in the fact that we all grieve with you.”
But it was hard to escape the feeling of smallness that surrounded the whole endeavor: a two-minute video, shot from his home in Delaware, watched on social media. A moment noted by retweets, shares and tiny heart emojis.
After the 9/11 attacks, dozens of members of Congress from both parties stood side by side on the steps of the Capitol, a powerful joint appearance. Many hugged, some cried. Today, a half-empty House chamber observed a moment of silence. Perhaps members shed private tears. No one hugs, anyhow.
Clearly, social distancing complicates the staging of large memorial events. But we live in extraordinary times. Members of Congress cast their first-ever remote votes this week. School districts have distributed iPads, and so many of us have learned to work from our bedrooms. If politicians wanted to mourn, their strategists would find a way. They always do, after all.
Those are questions that many American leaders, particularly in the White House, would prefer to avoid. They’ve chosen silence; we grieve alone.
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From Opinion: The Twitter bully pulpit
Donald Trump was an early adopter of Twitter, joining the platform as @realDonaldTrump in March 2009 and sending out his first tweet that May, hyping his upcoming appearance on “The Late Show.” Six years later he used his popularity on the site to transform himself into the most successful insurgent presidential candidate in modern history. And now, as president, Mr. Trump has turned his Twitter account into a personal, often rageful, font of misinformation.
Many have come to view his aggressive governance by tweet as deeply harmful, even dangerous — including two Opinion writers focused on media and tech, Charlie Warzel and Kara Swisher. Both praised Twitter’s decision this week to label two of Mr. Trump’s false tweets about mail voting as “potentially misleading,” complete with links to articles fact-checking him.
“Twitter pretty much called Mr. Trump a liar and brought the receipts,” Ms. Swisher wrote in her column. “No surprise that the president reacted with his usual rage — on Twitter, of course — accusing the platform on Tuesday of ‘stifling FREE SPEECH.’”
Mr. Warzel asked, “What Would Happen if Twitter Banned Trump?” After listing some hypothetical benefits, he ultimately rules against it: “Banning Mr. Trump from Twitter, just like fact-checking one or two of his lying tweets, might feel good and might make the platform feel less toxic for a while. But it’s still just tinkering on the margins. It won’t fix the deeper structural problems that have created our information apocalypse.”
Figuring out how to solve those structural problems, or even finding broad agreement on what exactly they are, is a debate that is sure to continue.
— Talmon Joseph Smith
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