Peter Berger: An actual alert

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Peter Berger, who has taught English and history for 30 years and writes “Poor Elijah’s Almanack.” The column appears in several publications including the Times Argus, the Rutland Herald and the Stowe Reporter.

  I’m a baby boomer.

  My mother and father were members of the Greatest Generation. They earned that laurel by rising to the consecutive challenges of the Great Depression and World War II.

  That’s not to say they were storybook perfect. I knew my parents well enough to both love them and recognize their human imperfection. They did, however, demonstrate a sense of duty and responsibility rarer in America’s subsequent generations, including mine, and including me.

  They also passed the constitutional test I lay out for my students. The preamble to our Constitution outlines the reasons for creating our government, from establishing justice to promoting the general welfare. It concludes with the duty to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” That posterity wasn’t solely the children of the Revolutionary generation. Every generation as it inherits the republic inherits the responsibility to preserve the republic for its children and grandchildren.

  That’s every generation – including mine, and yours. I have for years confessed to my students that I feared my generation hasn’t done a good job of passing its constitutional test. I’ve challenged them to meet their responsibility when it comes to be their turn.

  That’s not to say that life has always been sweetness and light for baby boomers. I grew up with the neighborhood air raid sirens my town tested every Saturday at noon. I remember the Cuban missile crisis, and hiding pointlessly under my school desk, and that a “warbling” tone, whatever that meant, signified an attack was “imminent.” I remember the Conelrad radio drills and their less than reassuring tagline informing us that “had this been an actual alert,” we would have been instructed where to tune our radios for bulletins from the government.

  Eventually, the more general and less alarming word “emergency” replaced “alert,” which was Cold War shorthand for Soviet hydrogen bombs falling from the sky. As trying as that was, though, real bombs never fell. We also never faced the London Blitz.

  With the virus at the front of most Americans’ minds, you’ve probably sensed where I’m headed. In case I’ve been too opaque, I’ll state my point more plainly.

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  This is an actual alert.

  Angela Merkel reckons COVID-19 our “biggest challenge since World War II.” Our government anticipates a national ordeal that could last 18 months and comprise “multiple waves of illness.”

  Some authorities liken our present pandemic to the lethal 1918 influenza or even the medieval Black Death. Others contend those comparisons overstate the case. Either way several points are clear.

  A microbe can still kill millions. London’s Imperial College forecasts that without a radical change in our national response, as many as 2.2 million Americans will die.

  Humans can still pass microbes to other humans, especially when they’re moronic enough to frolic together on beaches.

  All our vaunted medical technology and expertise can’t help us if there are no ventilators and our doctors and nurses can’t treat us because for want of masks and gowns, they sicken and die themselves.

  In addition to succumbing to microbes, we’re not immune to the despicable age-old sickness of scapegoating aliens and strangers. Witness the president needlessly and insistently branding COVID-19 a “Chinese virus.”

  At the supermarket I discovered that many Americans appear to believe that Bounty paper towels can ward off the disease. Behind me in line, two gentlemen were complaining that the news and the experts were overreacting. They agreed the virus was just a new kind of flu. The cashier gave me a look that told me she didn’t agree.

  It’s understandable that we’re confused. For more than a generation, we’ve been told that government is the problem, which it sometimes has been. All that mistrust, and the reasons for that mistrust, have come home to roost in the current White House. As usual we’ve been treated to vague assurances, incoherent excuses, false statements, and outright lies. The president repeatedly claims that “no one could have seen this coming.”

  Except they did. At that same time the president was calling the novel coronavirus the Democrats’ “new hoax” and predicting it would affect only 15 people. It was only later that he falsely and ridiculously claimed he’d known it was a pandemic before anyone else did.

  He gives himself a “10” for the way he’s handled the crisis. He denies responsibility for the government’s delayed and deficient response, even though two years ago he dismantled the White House office charged with responding to pandemics.

  I watch the daily briefings as they repeatedly veer off into sycophantic praise for the president’s alleged “leadership” and “bold action.” I watch the genuine experts standing mutely behind him as the presidential platitudes and absurdities wash over them. Their silent acquiescence leaves me doubting whether they’re really free to do the right things that they know must be done.

  I’m not the first to liken the COVID pandemic to a tidal wave. Here in the United States we’re belatedly bracing for our turn to face the wave. The problem with a tidal wave, apart from its juggernaut strength and size, is that by the time you see it coming, it’s too late to escape it.

  We need a credible national response to our common peril. Instead we have a president who craves the spotlight but not the responsibility. We need policies dictated by medical reality and expertise. Instead we’re still awash in political expediency and partisanship.

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  Viruses can kill. So can presidential vanity, incompetence, and dereliction.

  We need to be able to trust our federal government again. Our political leaders need to prove they’re trustworthy.

  But even more we need to take our own measure. A great generation is, after all, a collection of humble but great individuals, great in their quiet courage and selflessness.

  In Britain’s darkest, finest hour, Winston Churchill exhorted his people: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties.”

  May we be as resolute in our time.



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