A nation suspended
In an average year, in round figures, the United States of America loses about 2.8 million of its citizens to death by all causes. If we were to reach the 100,000 deaths projected for COVID-19 a little earlier this year, it would not amount to even 4% of this average annual figure. One hundred thousand deaths, more or less, is in line with the average annual variation in America's overall death toll. It would be no more than an unremarkable wiggle in the annual graph. The worst-case estimate I have heard, that of 2.2 million deaths if nothing whatsoever had been done, would have amounted to 0.67% of the current U.S. population. It would have been a noteworthy spike on the graph, but still not an existential threat to America. A calamity but not a catastrophe. You would think a country that absorbs without flinching about 600,000 deaths by heart disease, another 600,00 by cancer, and doesn't even count a further 600,000 deaths by abortion, year after monotonous year, would be less squeamish about the common cold's nastier new cousin. A very shaky sense of proportion is, unfortunately, an endemic human trait.
One should not become indifferent to the death of any individual. I'm certainly not saying that. After all, we die not as statistics, but as living, breathing persons. All lives do matter to someone, or at least they ought to. Neither is the idea of our hospitals being overrun with patients in one great surge a happy thought. However, we should not lose perspective. Human beings die every day — sometimes quietly in bed, sometimes in violence or unspeakable suffering. Like it or not, it happens to all of us. Acceptance of this lamentable fact of nature has a name: "maturity."
My grandparents lived through the Spanish Flu of 1918. It killed 675,000 people in the U.S. — almost exactly the same proportion of the population of that time as the 2.2-million worst-case estimate for COVID-19. It was an unhappy event in my grandparents' lives, I am sure, but they went on to swell the population of the world by five children nevertheless. Life asserts itself when we do not lose heart. I do not think my grandparents either asked for or received any grief counseling for the loss of family members or for the trauma of whatever passing trials they experienced. They lived in a different mental and emotional universe. Their life expectations did not include the utter absence of risk or pain. They were quite prepared to cope, for better or worse, with whatever life brought down the pike.
As I write this, I am sitting in a nearly empty second-story corporate office. It's my lunch hour. It is nearly dark. There are not enough people left in the building to justify turning on the lights. Just little islands of the blue glow of computer screens and gray-tinted windows make it possible to get around. I can cope. I am not overcome by emotional hardship, but I am dismayed by the passive or even enthusiastic acceptance people have that our economy needed the plug pulled and the switch smacked firmly off. I rebel at the thought. Two months ago, we were thriving, making money hand over fist. This was a good thing for everyone who worked here, from the CEO to the janitorial staff. A few weeks from now, I will be furloughed along with hundreds of others. We will wait as the state and federal governments cautiously turn the power back on and hope the great and ponderous engine of society manages to shrug back to life. I'm not particularly confident in the economic expertise of the social engineers at the controls. Many of them have a deep-seated dislike for economic activity other than windmill manufacture or the marijuana retail business. Many of the rest are so out of touch that they imagine that their food appears spontaneously on grocery store shelves. It says something about a nation's leaders when they not only quarantine the sick or the especially vulnerable, but effectively put most of the country under house arrest.
I do not blame Trump personally for going along with all of this. I think his enemies may have finally located his Achilles heel. Far from the heartless brute the leftist media has portrayed, Trump seems to care about people simply because they are people. Recall last year, when he called off a retaliatory air strike against Iran at the last possible moment because, he said, he didn't want to take the lives of 150-odd Iranian soldiers. Here, perhaps, he has done the same thing. He will insult and bluster and cajole — but he doesn't want any actual deaths on his hands. As he shuffles around the podium, the weight upon his shoulders is almost painfully apparent. Obama, on the other hand, happily checked the boxes on the daily drone strike list — and was unfazed by the suffering wrought by his policies. In 2016, we elected a man with a conscience, oddly enough. Who knew? We can hardly fault him for this most endearing of all weaknesses.
I do not know what will happen over the summer or beyond. Nobody does. No honest person could ever claim to. But I fear more for my liberty than my life. Like Patrick Henry, I would rather die than live under the crushing weight of anybody's boot. This isn't courage. It is nothing more than sheer hard-bitten realism. A virus can only kill me — but Big Brother's prying eye and heavy fist can make my life a misery to the end of my days. History has no shortage of examples.
Death is unavoidable. I must believe that totalitarianism, at least, is not.