I have often wondered how major world tragedies and horrors were allowed to unfold. Where were all the good people, those who objected or should have? How did life simply go on with a horror in their midst?
How did the trans-Atlantic slave trade play out over hundreds of years? How did slavery thrive in this country? How was the Holocaust allowed to happen? How did the genocides in Rwanda or Darfur come to be?
There is, of course, nearly always an explanation. Often it is official policy; often it is driven by propaganda. But I’m more concerned with how people in the society considered these events at the time, and how any semblance of normalcy could be maintained while events unfolded.
It turns out that our current era is providing the unsettling answer: It was easy.
As I write this, nearly two hundred thousand Americans have died — many of them needlessly — from Covid-19, in large part because the Trump administration has refused to sufficiently address the crisis, be honest with the American people and urge caution. Instead, Trump has lied about the virus, downplayed it, resisted scientists’ warnings and continues to hold rallies with no social distancing and no mask requirements.
Things are poised to get worse: Models now predict that the number of Americans killed by the virus could double between now and Jan. 1. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington:
“We expect the daily death rate in the U.S., because of seasonality and declining public vigilance, to reach nearly 3,000 a day in December. Cumulative deaths expected by Jan. 1 are 415,090; this is 222,522 deaths from now until the end of the year.”
And yet, Americans still flock to Trump rallies, Republicans continue to defend his pandemic response and it is not clear that he will be defeated in November. We are, in many states, back to restaurants and bars, schools and churches, gyms and spas. It’s not as if we don’t know that there is a deadly virus being transmitted through the air, but it seems as though many Americans, weary of restrictions, have simply made their peace with it.
We have a climate crisis that continues to worsen. Storms are getting stronger. Droughts are severe. Rivers are flooding. The sea level is rising. And yet, we don’t do nearly enough to stop it and may not do enough before it’s too late to do anything.
Right now much of the West Coast is ablaze with hellish scenes of orange skies, and yet too many of us entertain climate change deniers, or, perhaps worse, know well the gravity and precariousness of the situation and still haven’t changed our habits or voted for the candidates with the boldest visions to save the planet.
Right now, China has detained as many as one million mostly Muslim citizens, in indoctrination camps, hoping to remold many into what The New York Times called “loyal blue-collar workers to supply Chinese factories with cheap labor.”
And yet, the world does little. Many look away. Life goes on.
This is how these catastrophes happen — in full sight — and people with full knowledge don’t revolt. People sometimes think that the issue is far away, or if it’s not, that it’s too big and they are too powerless.
They think provincially, or even parochially, concerned with their own house, their own street, their own community.
“It’s too bad that those children are in cages, but I can’t worry about that now, the clothes in the dryer need folding.”
“It’s too bad that an unarmed Black man just got shot by the police, but I can’t worry about that now, the yard needs mowing.”
I guess in some ways this impulse is self-protecting, preventing the mind and spirit from becoming overwhelmed with angst and rage. But, the result is that evil — as a person or system — rampages, unchecked, taking your personal laissez-faire as public license.
If you don’t complain, you condone.
But this mustn’t be. Stop thinking of yourself as weak or helpless. Stop thinking that things will simply work themselves out. Stop thinking that evil will stop at the gate and not trample your own garden.
Gather the energy. Gather your neighbor. Fight, vote, email, post. Do all you can to stand up for the vulnerable, for the oppressed, for the planet itself. Don’t let history record this moment as it has recorded too many others: a time when good people did too little to confront wickedness and disaster.
As Edmund Burke wrote in his 1770 “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents”: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
But you may be more familiar with another quote often attributed to Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”