Hays, Kan. is a town of about 20,000 people. It sits low and anonymous on the western Kansas plains, about halfway between Kansas City and Denver, where the summer winds blow strong and warm. There’s a gas station downtown — if you can call it downtown — where a heavyset man runs the register. He doesn’t wear a mask while he works. It’s not that he believes the pandemic is a hoax, perhaps he doesn’t even believe it’s overblown. It’s a simple matter of prerogative. “It’s my right to not wear a mask,” he growls if you ask the obvious. There’s a relatively simple implied calculus: The potential drawbacks of not wearing a mask, for himself and those with whom he comes into contact, are outweighed by his personal right to not wear one. It’s questionable social algebra, but he’s decided it adds up.

Perhaps he and his mask-eschewing brethren subscribe to Benjamin Franklin’s pronouncement — which, though twisted from its original meaning, has become a popular undercurrent of conservative and libertarian thought — that “those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Whether it be a gubernatorial ban on public gatherings or a local mask mandate, any rule restricting corporal autonomy in the name of security is inherently wrong — even tyrannical — and must be resisted. I didn’t stick around long enough to interview the gentleman from Hays, Kan. on his political philosophy, but it wasn’t a stretch to imagine him thinking along these lines. 

On Sept. 20, 2001 — nine days after around 3,000 Americans lost their lives on a day of unspeakable horror and tragedy — Former President George Bush consoled a shell-shocked republic in a televised address to Congress. “Tonight we face new and sudden national challenges,” Bush said. “Americans have known surprise attacks, but never before on thousands of civilians.”

When I pulled off I-70 into Hays, Kan. for gas and coffee during a mid-June road trip, about 105,000 Americans had died from COVID-19, an invisible enemy. Algebra, that made 35 9/11s. As of early September, there are over 180,000 Americans dead — about 60 9/11s — all in the span of five months. More algebra: Since late March, that’s about one 9/11 every two and a half days. 

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, almost 80 percent of Americans believed they would “need to sacrifice some of their freedoms in order to be safe from terror.” By early 2006, the tide had shifted against the freedom-for-security trade-off: Over half of Americans lamented the erosion of civil liberties during the Bush administration’s prosecution of the War on Terror. The partisan divide, however, is noteworthy: while 80 percent of Democrats expressed some amount of concern, two-thirds of Republicans — the party of small government, of tooth-and-nail protection of individual freedom— shrugged it off, if they were even worried at all.

As the United States confronted a new, invisible enemy this spring, the philosophies had reversed. Liberals were more supportive of government mandates restricting “freedom,” in a very broad sense of the word, to curb the wildfire spread of COVID-19. Conservatives, once inclined to restrict freedom for safety from terror, were less supportive of such measures than their liberal counterparts and were more inclined to regard public gathering restrictions or mask requirements as overreactions, or worse, tyrannical oversteps.

Hypothetically, let’s say that for the past six months, 3,000 Americans were killed by terrorist attacks every two and a half days; for the sake of simplicity, that rounds to roughly 1,000 Americans a day. Every single day, at a restaurant in Boston, a shopping mall in San Francisco or a school in Chicago. The locations change, but the daily outcome is the same. Your personal risk of being killed at any given bar in Miami or Philadelphia is low, sure, but in a situation where these attacks can and do happen anytime, anywhere, are you really taking that risk?

Of course not. We’d be holed up in our homes, expecting a prompt government response to address the issue so that life can return to normal. 

A disclaimer, I know, is in order. There is something inherently more horrifying about planes flying into buildings or blown up coffee shops than disease. With COVID-19, the individual has a greater degree of agency — by no means absolute, but still greater — to insulate oneself and their loved ones from harm. The former, however, is random and wholly indiscriminate; there is really nothing you can do. But even so, we must give due consideration to the equally real human cost. 60 9/11s. 60.

We find ourselves in a worse position today than we need to be because of the lack of a firm response last spring. Americans, and conservatives especially, were more resistant to the idea of shutdown measures and were more impatient with them once implemented in comparison with their liberal and European counterparts. It should come as no surprise, then, that in early August the U.S.— only 75 percent the size of the European Union — saw five times the number of daily COVID cases, or that our death toll is greater than the EU’s to a tune of 100,000. 

Just because the enemy is invisible doesn’t mean it is any less real. More Americans have died, and will die, than should have, simply because people can’t wrap their heads around this. Those who are pushing for a quick reopening, a fantasy return to normalcy that is just not possible, are guilty of immoral social algebra. That isn’t America first. That’s you first, America be damned.

Max Steinbaum can be reached at maxst@umich.edu.

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