As America begins to open back up again, the debate will continue to rage about the timing of such a fateful decision. Where does one find the balance between the loss of life from the coronavirus and the millions suffering from the U.S. economy on the brink? Who can answer what is an acceptable risk for the greater good under such extraordinary circumstances?
The inevitable fact is that as America goes back to business as usual, people will continue to die from COVID-19, which is a tragedy. But America has a long and dreadful history of such excruciating choices of which cup of poison will hurt the least amount of people.
President Trump is hardly the first American leader who has been forced to make such a historic decision, which will impact so many people with tragic consequences.
The greatest example would be President Lincoln. The Civil War is the deadliest in American history with up to 620,000 deaths and at least as many casualties. Taken as a percentage of today’s population, the death toll would have been equivalent to 6 million Americans in 2020. At least 23,000 lives were lost at just Gettysburg.
Lincoln paid a terrible price for his heartbreaking choices to knowingly send so many people to their deaths, which led to his own assassination. He was only 56 when he was murdered, but he looked more like 86. He was willing to choose the greater good to preserve a nation so that the “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth.”
America’s most costly foreign war was World War II, with more than 400,000 U.S. deaths. The turning point in that war was D-Day. Dwight Eisenhower, who would one day be the American president, led an invasion that looked more like a suicide mission against Nazi Germany.
As unthinkable as it seemed to knowingly send young men to certain death, he knew that, to free Europe from the fascist rule of Hitler, there was no other way. He was forced to put the greater good ahead of certain death.
The year after this momentous event, President Truman was put in the unenviable position to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese civilian targets, which would kill more than 200,000 men, women and children.
As horrific as this choice was, the alternative was the potential of killing hundreds of thousands more lives from all sides in an invasion of Japan.
I cannot imagine such a ghastly choice for any person to make, but Truman believed ending World War II was the greater good.
Americans overwhelmingly support opening our country as quickly, and as safely as possible. But we will never be able to fully eliminate the risks with COVID-19. People are still going to die.
For context, we’ve managed to move on as a country despite the brutal reality of far more deaths from the seasonal flu, which is also contagious. In addition, we’ve found a way to deal with other terrible causes such as cancer, traffic accidents, or even suicide, which is the No. 2 cause of death among our teenagers. And all without shutting down our economy.
I am not comparing President Trump to Lincoln or any other historical leader, only the unwelcome position of having to choose the greater good against unavoidable death. He doesn’t have the luxury of just looking at COVID-19 from a health perspective. It’s our highest priority, but it’s not America’s only priority. The president must consider how all future choices will impact every element of our society.
And as he makes these difficult choices for the greater good, you and I are also left with a choice.
We can aspire to our higher angels and unite as Americans against a common enemy that wants to kill us all. Or we can succumb to our darkest instincts to manipulate this deadly crisis by dividing Americans through endlessly blaming, second-guessing, and finger-pointing as a perverted winning strategy to score the most depraved of political points.
This is an important election year and there should be a robust debate on the issues. I have no problem raising questions on our candidates as we select our next leaders so they are fully vetted. When it comes to so much death and misery from COVID-19, may we all seek the greater good for America.
Gil Mertz is a Thousand Oaks resident and former Santa Clarita Valley resident who worked for Help the Children in Valencia for 20 years.