It was Memorial Day. What is that, exactly? It’s a day to remember and honor Americans who died while serving in the U.S. military, especially those who died in combat. Whether or not you approve or disapprove of a particular war, or indeed all wars, it is, in concept and intention, a somber occasion. It’s a time for reflection and showing respect.
The United States has adopted some strange ways of recognizing this occasion, although the phenomenon is not unique to Memorial Day. Most people get the day off from work. Some watch the televised memorials over the weekend; some watch the president and other dignitaries pay their respects officially by, for example, placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery.
Many others see the day only as a holiday occasion and this year, in particular, there was greater emphasis on the “re-opening” of the country following the various lockdowns driven by the coronavirus epidemic. I have no idea what the ratio was of celebrants to serious observers, but if the scene on Alabama’s beaches is any guide, a very large number of Americans saw this day as simply an excuse to abandon caution and head out for a good time. Multiple videos showed massive crowding at swimming pools in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri and the Ace Speedway in North Carolina, among others. Masks and social distancing were largely absent. St. Louis County officials called the scenes an “international example of bad judgment.” https://wapo.st/3gqBjcD
To be clear, I don’t care much what any individual chooses to do regarding protecting himself or throwing caution to the winds in pursuit of belief that he has a constitutional right to do what he pleases. Freedom, American values and all of that, are what each individual decides they mean for herself.
However, the line is drawn when an individual’s choices infringe on the rights and values of others, including the right to be protected from dangerous behavior. This is why we have speed limits, stop signs, protection of minors from certain types of work and many other restrictions on what we might individually be inclined to do. This is not hard to understand. True, there are violations of the speed limit, seat belt laws and the others every day by someone somewhere, often many someones. According to Rhino Lawyers, on average the police issue 112,000 driving citations a day! https://bit.ly/3gndAKd Some of these are for inadvertent mistakes and many are for deliberate decisions to, for example, disobey speed limits. And, of course, most violators of the rules of the road are not brought to justice. Sometimes, these behaviors lead to tragedies, resulting in deaths, disabilities, lawsuits and so on.
We are in the middle of a global health pandemic with similar deadly consequences, so far, in the United States for 100,000 individuals (exactly 99,498 as I write) and roughly as many families. Globally, the deaths exceed 348,000 out of more than 5.5 million cases. It is highly likely that the reported numbers understate the actual case and death toll. https://bit.ly/2ZL3soy No end is in sight. There is no “remedy” or “cure” that can be administered reliably to the stricken. All ages and demographics are affected, some more than others, but no sector is immune. There is no vaccine and none in the offing any time soon. Many more will fall ill and many more will die before this is “over,” if it ever is. Like the flu, COVID-19 may be with us forever.
Returning then to individual behavior, I repeat that if an individual wants to risk his life on the chance that he won’t be infected, so be it. Do whatever you want with your own life, provided that doing so does not place others involuntarily at risk.
Consider these statements from people interviewed at a packed Alabama beach yesterday, where there was no active enforcement of the policy that groups should consist only of same-family members:
“I’m just here to have fun and meet everybody and be cool, you know.”
Recent college graduate: “I don’t want to die but if [death] is what God has in store for my life, that’s ok.”
“If we get it, we get it…. We’re just going to handle it as a family and just get over it because that’s what a family does.”
“People die from the flu also.”
“I get it, I get it. The survival rate is so high…. we’re all going to get sick from something eventually.”
“If he’s not wearing a mask, I’m not wearing a mask; if he’s not worried, I’m not worried,” young male referencing Donald Trump.
“When it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go.”
Such fatalism is fine for individuals who have no contact with other people but most of these people likely have plenty of social contacts. Their “decision” to risk sickness, permanent injury and even death at the hands of the coronavirus thus exposes many others to the same risk whether they want to take it or not.
This is a degree of selfishness, openly and proudly displayed, that should be of profound concern to everyone. These people are living by the “principle” that says, “I only care about me and no one else. My rights and privileges, my freedoms to do whatever I want are more important than the welfare of anyone else that I may come in contact with, including children, elderly people with compromised immune systems or co-morbidities. I am all that matters. Me, Me, Me.”
This comes not just from the very young or the older young restless/reckless who often think they are invulnerable and whose cerebral cortexes, science informs us, are not fully developed and often make bad decisions. People of all ages and with families were interviewed on the Alabama beach. These are our “fellow Americans,” for whose “freedoms,” many men and women gave their lives in foreign wars. I doubt that if we could ask the fallen warriors whether this is what they meant to sacrifice for, most all would say, “no, we did not act selflessly just so others could be so selfish and indifferent to the welfare of others.”
But this is the contemporary reality of life in the United States. It’s not happening in just one place and it’s not just the product of needing to re-open the economy. This is blatant selfish behavior. These people include some of the angry, usually white, people who have carried guns into some state capitols, without being challenged, to demand re-opening. Like the people at the beaches and pools this weekend, they refuse to wear masks or engage in social distancing to protect others. While shouting and waving flags and signs about their “rights,” these selfish people make clear that don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves. Other people’s rights to be free of disease and to avoid contact with high-risk people and behaviors mean nothing to them.
Having witnessed the ravages of this disease up close and personal, my patience with these people has been consumed. The tank is empty. I am fearful of my reaction if I continue to encounter unmasked people on the streets of New York when we dare to venture out. They were everywhere this Memorial Day weekend when we walked for the first time in two months. The Governor of New York has observed that wearing a mask is simply the “right thing to do.” Still, many are unmoved. They just don’t care.
As tempting as it is to wish they all get infected, that would just expose even more people, including health care workers, to the consequences of their reckless and morally bankrupt insensitivity and that would be wrong. So, I try not to be vengeful. It is hard. This kind of indifference to the fate of other people seems un-American. It seems inhuman. No one can claim valid religious conviction to justify this, though many do so. There is no true religion anywhere that says, “do for yourself and to hell with everyone else.” That, however, is where we are.