I got married two weeks before Sept. 11, 2001. I was still basking in the glow of the event that morning as I drove to work. I had no idea what devastation was in store. Over the next few weeks, Americans came face to face with an awareness that was new to my generation: we are not immune from the world’s violence. We were unaccustomed to such loss. But we emerged from the rubble a bit stronger, at least for a time, because we did it together.
For nearly a year now, our lives have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Close to half a million people have died in the United States — that’s roughly equivalent to 157 Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which almost 3,000 lost their lives. What a strange country this is.
Such a staggering death rate is terrible. That it comes with job loss, isolation, and depressed kids makes it worse. That the victims are disproportionately people of color makes it a tragedy of epic proportions. Our nation is suffering, and for that we should be sad and, yes, angry.
Everywhere I look in the news and on social media, someone is furious: furious about masks, resentful about restaurant restrictions, distraught about kids out of school. Anger is directed at school districts, teachers, health departments, even low-paid store employees imploring customers to wear masks.
I’ve got no quarrel with the anger itself. 471,000 people dead? A mental health crisis among young people? Widespread unemployment? Of course people are mad. But they’re mad at the wrong people.
Those of us distraught at Donald Trump’s election weren’t sore losers. We were genuinely concerned because he had no business in the presidency, and anyone being honest with themselves knows it. We were worried, not only about the erosion of democracy and the hateful rhetoric, but about the very real possibility that our country could face a crisis that demanded solid, competent leadership and we would be without it.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. COVID-19 caught us woefully unprepared, despite our two-month head start, and things went downhill from there.
For a few weeks after the country went into lockdown, we had a glimpse of the possibilities: people together in spirit if not in person, serenading healthcare workers, shopping for elderly neighbors, cheering hospital ships and mask makers and teachers. A true leader would have summoned the full power of this goodness and conjured an American success story for the history books.
What we got was a national crisis. In the hands of our president, the pandemic was an inconvenience, a personal political battle even. Instead of channeling our nation’s fighting spirit to attack this virus, our leader, spurred on by the self-serving desires of states to reopen, attacked health experts and scientists. Given the opportunity to heal the divisions in this country and unite us against a common enemy, Trump chose to sow division and discord. By opposing the already unpopular stay-at-home orders, he assured himself support.
Right-wing instigators-for-profit jumped on board. Conservatives began co-opting traditional liberal issues —a rise in suicide rates, hurting small business, students left behind — to feed their anti-lockdown narrative. Media personalities who regularly weaponize religious freedom joined in with stories of closed churches to further inflame the base.
Trump’s actions pried open a fissure straining to break. Just like that, we had a nation divided, and fighting or ignoring COVID-19 safety measures became a political statement. The push to reopen worked, and our window to shut down the pandemic closed.
My family has been luckier than many — my husband is busy at work, I have been able to devote time to my kids, we’ve all stayed healthy — but things are still really, really hard. My kids are struggling. Their lives have been affected, from missed events to forced long-distance relationships to endless hours at home. They have faced these challenges with admirable resilience. But it’s too much to ask of them.
So yes, I understand anger. I’m mad at people who refuse to wear masks. I’m mad at people who looked at fatality demographics and said “I’ll be fine” without a thought to the people they might come in contact with. I’m mad at people who kept going to places of worship and parties and crowded bars. I’m frustrated with people who understand the importance of masks but voted for politicians who shun them. It is because of all of these people — not health experts or governors issuing stay-at-home orders or teachers — that we are still suffering.
But there’s a problem. Anger, no matter where directed, is rarely productive on its own. Being mad doesn’t make things better or make people change their behavior, especially in a culture as effectively adolescent as ours. Ultimately, we need to transform this anger into something productive. None of us owe Trump anything, not loyalty, not trust, not the continued myth-telling that coronavirus is a hoax, and certainly not the preservation of his divisions. We have a new administration and we are down to one common enemy: COVID-19. We can be better. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.
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