The difference between Americans’ national response to the 9/11 attacks and the Covid-19 pandemic is striking. Both were tragic yet heroic opportunities for people to rally to a common cause: defeating radical Islamic terror, or eradicating a terrible plague. But in one case, twenty years ago, Americans chose national unity in the face of danger. Nowadays, we choose to make our fellow Americans the enemy — and the greatest danger of all lurks within our politically poisoned hearts.
What has changed in the past two decades? We’ve had two failed wars abroad, in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have undermined Americans’ confidence in our country as a force for good in the world. And we have an intensifying culture war here at home, between the “Reds” and the “Blues” — the Trumpist Right and the Woke Left — two factions of our society that increasingly hate each other with a passion that equals, or even exceeds, the hatred felt by radical Islamic terrorists toward America as a whole.
To put it simply, at this time in history what divides us feels more meaningful than what holds us together. That’s why tens of millions of Americans have refused to get a safe, FDA-approved vaccine against Covid: to “own the libs.” Their hatred of the scientific elite, who are aligned with liberal politicians, is so great that they would rather risk severe illness or death than bend the knee, essentially, by rolling down their sleeve to get a shot that is endorsed so strongly by their political enemies.
This problem has been caused, in significant part, by the unfair characterization of conservatives in general by the loudest voices on the left as barbaric, racist “deplorables” who are worthy only of a good scolding by their self-appointed progressive moral superiors. The rise, and continued tremendous popularity of Donald Trump, has been the tragic result — for Trump is a man who plays upon the anger and mutual loathing of Americans like a devil playing the fiddle. As long as he remains on the stage, it seems that America will be dancing to a diabolical tune, bringing out the worst in both sides as they accuse each other more and more fiercely of evil.
I don’t believe the average American, whether liberal or conservative, is evil. I think most people would prefer to have a moderate, competent government that takes care of basic essential functions — and whose leaders refrain from stirring up strife by trying to ram their preferred ideologies down everyone’s throats. Maybe if that were the tone and tenor of our political system today, Americans in general could rally together to defeat the deadly coronavirus.
Instead, in the wake of the Trump era and the rise of two political factions seemingly hellbent on the utter destruction of either conservative or liberal ways of life in all of America, we find ourselves unable to come together for anything — even when it is essential for our survival.
Trump has functioned as a far more effective suicide bomb felling the towers of American national greatness than anything Osama Bin Laden could have imagined. But the ex-president and insurrectionist is only a symptom of a much deeper underlying cause: that too many of the American people have come to hate each other more than they love the country we share.
Can liberals love their fellow Americans who believe abortion is immoral and should be severely restricted, or that “color-blind” policies on race are more consistent with our highest American values than “equity”? Can conservatives love their fellow Americans who believe we need to reckon with our nation’s racist past and ongoing injustices, or that women’s access to reproductive health care is an essential civil right?
This is a challenge for many of us. We all have our opinions on the big issues of the day, and some of us hold them strongly. But if we can’t put national unity ahead of our personal preferences — if we can’t come together despite our differences, embracing tolerance for the beliefs and way of life of both liberals and conservatives coexisting within a single, diverse nation — we may find that the ideological battlefield that our country has become becomes a more literal battleground of the forces of extremism, resembling the smoldering ruins of 9/11.