If living through a pandemic weren’t enough, it seems we are in a time of rampant ignorance, anger and lies. The truth seems to have struck an iceberg of alternative facts and gone to the bottom of the ocean like the Titanic. We are now left with a brawling society looking for someone to blame for society’s problems. It surely can’t be ourselves. It must be the government, the Liberals, the Conservatives, the Whites, the Blacks, the Asians, certainly the Chinese, the NRA, the ACLU, the Russians, somebody has to be responsible for the fear and anger we are feeling. Right?
I have lived almost seventy years and have seen how the United States and much of the world has lurched from one crisis to another, from one ideology to another, from one economic theory to another and never found peace. In fact, peace never really seems to be the goal. It seems to revolve more around dominance. The belief being, that if only a certain nation, religion or ideology dominates then everything will be OK. Might makes right seems to be a persistent belief that sticks to us like chewing gum on the bottom of our shoe. We make attempts to scrape it off but then something makes us feel afraid. We abandon the effort and re-embrace the belief that someone has to lose in order for us to feel safe.
I have often said that greed is the most basic of human flaws; the original sin. Lately though, as I have watched people vehemently refuse to take minor mitigating actions like wearing a mask in public or maintaining social distancing, I have begun to realize fear is the driving force underlying greed. It appears that for many people the idea that they should surrender their personal needs for the greater good enslaves them in some devil-inspired anonymity or worse. Their fears override their ability to work together for the benefit of the whole. Out of these fears comes social chaos, divisiveness and the need to blame someone.
On December 7, 1941, following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt addressed Congress and the nation. He spoke of the grave seriousness of the current situation and the long hard path that lay ahead for the country as it headed to war. As he spoke to the nation, he assured them that, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. He knew, as did many Americans, that the way the country would persevere was to work together, to make personal and collective sacrifices to defeat a common enemy. More recently, after the attacks of 9/11 in New York City and Washington D.C., President Bush called on the country to join together to respond as a nation to this tragedy and at least for a little while, the country did unify.
I have been looking for a similar response from our current president since the pandemic took hold in America. Perhaps I’ve missed it somehow, but I have not heard words of unification and collective effort to meet the challenges of this pandemic. Our president won’t urge citizens to wear a mask when the best scientific information says it is the simplest and most effective way to reduce infecting each other with the virus. I was raised to believe leaders led by example. Leaders encouraged cooperation and mutual responsibility. I am reluctant to wade into the political realm here. It seems to me that an effective response to a virus that affects our entire nation and way of life shouldn’t have anything to do with politics. We really shouldn’t have anything to fear but fear itself. If we are to vanquish this virus, we shouldn’t be afraid of each other. We shouldn’t be battling each other or looking for scapegoats. This virus doesn’t care how you vote, what ethnic group you belong to, who you sleep with. It is our common enemy. This virus is our 21st Century domestic Pearl Harbor.
Some of you may recognize the title of this essay. It is from an episode of The Twilight Zone* that first aired on March 4, 1960. It takes place on Maple Street in Anytown, USA. It’s a warm Saturday night and suddenly the electricity goes out. No one can find out why. As the good residents of Maple Street try to make sense out of what is happening they become increasingly agitated and afraid. Eventually, they work themselves into a frenzy and begin turning on each other, first verbally and then violently. As complete chaos erupts, the camera pans out and you see two “aliens” talking about how easy it is to instigate fear. They note that they don’t have to invade, they only have to create fear and the people of Earth will destroy themselves.
I am confident that we will eventually conquer this COVID-19 virus. How soon that happens depends a great deal on whether we let ourselves succumb to our fears or accept our responsibility to each other. The Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”, ends with this monologue by the narrator of the show, Rod Serling:
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices...to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill...and suspicion can destroy...and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.
*The Twilight Zone was a popular TV show that aired on CBS from October 1959 to June 1964. It was created and hosted by Rod Serling. It ran for 156 episodes. The episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”, can be seen on www.youtube.com.
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