2020 is being marked by a pandemic, a financial crisis, and a reckoning over racial justice. 19 years ago, the country was marked by the arrival of foreign terrorism on our borders. It reshaped us and redefined the US relationship with the world. This pandemic, and the current social justice movement may do that, driving a similar reshaping of America, hopefully for the better.
The story of the US is one of continuous recreation, continuous rebuilding, advancing the country in the direction of greater inclusion and sometimes pulling back from the progress made in a continuous two-steps forward, one-step back dance, relentlessly moving towards a more perfect union but never quite getting there yet.
This year is no different.
The health crisis of COVID-19 has robbed many of family and friends ( I count myself among the fortunate as the family members and friends who confronted the disease survived it); This year is a year when we can make different choices about what health safety can look like for future generations; generations who may be faced by further extinction threats; generations that can learn from the global actions taken to fight this pandemic and use this collective model to fight the upcoming environmental crisis.
The social crisis is leading to a potential reckoning over the country’s racist foundation and past. In what may have been one of the largest set of protests for social justice, millions of Americans of all colors have demonstrated, asking for the country’s leadership to find ways to do better, to find approaches to reform a system of injustice that has institutionalized racists behaviors. While slavery was buried with the civil war, the system that supported slavery still needs reform to create opportunities for all people, to build out a more perfect union.
And yet many despair that things cannot get better. They see the challenges of the last four years as an immutable tide moving backward. Less than 4 years after the first Black president left office, they see a country that cannot march forward.
That pull/push is the story of America: The Civil War brought forth the rise of the KKK; the Civil Rights movement drove racist politics forward; and the election (and re-election) of Barack Obama enraged racists white supremacist who found an enabler in his successor.
This year is an election year, one that presents an opportunity for the US to chart a different path than the one it’s been on for the last four years; an opportunity to deal with the rise of internal enemies (neo-nazis and other white supremacists intent on returning the US to a pre-civil rights era; science deniers intent on undermining understanding of basic facts) and agitation by external enemies intent on sowing division and tearing the democratic institutions that once made the US the envy of the world.
After the 9/11 attacks 19 years ago, the world look to the US and asked “how can we help?” Today, the US answer to the same question around the pandemic seems to be “we don’t need your help.” The US appears to has turned our back on the world, refusing to work with others to fight a common enemy. 19 years ago, a global collaboration led to the extinction of the threat presented by state actors supporting terrorists, with the US leading the way; today, a global collaboration is working to extinguish a virus but the US is markedly absent, not only unable to lead the globe but also challenged in keeping up with others who have done better.
Today, over 1,000 Americans will die of COVID-19 across 50 states; on 9/11, 2,996 Americans died in 4 locations; This week alone, twice as many Americans will die of COVID-19 than died in the 9/11 attacks.
With 3,000 Americans dead, the country mobilized and changed its character to adapt and protect; with almost 200,000 Americans dead (191,572 as I type this), the US response to COVID-19 is still a patchwork that leaves many of us uncertain as to what the future might hold.
But this November, a choice can be made as to whether to re-engage with the world and build a better America or double-down on the US we currently have. If you’re an American citizen of voting age, your choice at the ballot box will decide whether this post presents the most dire of times in American history since 9/11 or whether the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is one when we look back wistfully at a time when things were simpler and when the functioning of democracy was something we could take for granted, even in the country’s darkest hours.
Carlos Dominguez, Mark Ellis, Melissa Vincent, Michael DiPasquale, Cynthia Giugliano, Jeremy Glick, David Halderman, Steve Weinberg, Gerard Jean Baptiste, Tom McCann, David Vera.
This post is part of a continuing series in which I remember those I knew who were lost on that day. Here are the previous years: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002. For context, you might want to read The day after, which is about as raw as one can get about that day as I wrote that piece less than 36 hours after the first plane hit. This is the longest series I’ve ever written and I expect to continue yearly until I can no longer write.