By Tyler Genevay
Earlier this month, the nation marked the nineteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks with our usual solemnity, care, and grief. Photos of the burning World Trade Center were once again splashed across social media, lest anyone get the impression that they had forgotten the event which so scarred our collective consciousness. President Donald Trump visited Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as did Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who had also visited Ground Zero in New York. At the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan, Vice President Mike Pence and Mr. Biden shared a pandemic-era elbow bump, politely speaking about anything other than the divisive electoral campaign currently roiling America. The Democratic vice presidential nominee, Senator Kamala Harris of California, spoke at the Pentagon crash site about the country’s ongoing commitment to remembrance and grief. For all the tumultuous aftermath of the attacks—the uncompromising pain, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the shaken national image—the 11th of September continues to be a hallowed day, a day of mourning when millions of Americans recount where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news.
Those 24 hours, of course, are a welcome but brief respite from the nation’s present division, rancor, and partisanship. The coronavirus pandemic has killed 200,000 people in the United States—and yet, even as the virus spreads unabated, basic health protocols are protested, questioned, doubted, ignored. Facing the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, tens of millions of workers are unemployed, and the Congress cannot agree on even a basic framework for another aid package. Trailing in the polls with less than 50 days until the election, the president has unleashed a stream of racist vitriol, lies, and pure nonsense to attempt another unlikely comeback, poisoning our democracy and body politic along the way. This weekend, one of America’s most accomplished, most inspiring, and most notorious legal minds passed away after 27 years of being the single best thing about the Supreme Court, thrusting the rule of law, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and nearly everything else we hold dear into an uncertain future. True to form and courtesy of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the worst elements of politics—the infighting, the bickering, the hypocrisy—quickly overtook the boundless grief that accompanies Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. Oh, and even though the West Coast is choked by unstoppable wildfires while the coastal South is flooded by the most active hurricane season on record, the president of the United States doesn’t believe in climate change.
Over the last nine months, the nation has faced an incalculable loss, boundless and ongoing. The statistics, the impersonal numbers scrawling across television sets—six million infected, 40 million jobs lost, seven million acres burned—belie the true scope of the United States’ reckoning. Or, more aptly, our lack thereof. Despite the multiple continuing crises, our clamoring and division have preempted any national mourning, any ritual of grief like our collective reflection every year on the 11th of September. A not-insignificant percentage of Americans don’t even believe that Covid-19 is real, spurred on by a president that chooses to lie to the public about the virus’ threat rather than confront it with leadership, science, or understanding. Of course, we know that Donald Trump has no capacity for empathy, but doesn’t the American public? Still, as the summer turns to a deeply frightening and uncertain fall, with our rudderless nation careening from one worst-case scenario to another, there hasn’t been a moment to pause and reflect, to truly contemplate the erosion of our purported values, to properly grieve the sorry state of our union.
Running for reelection in 1984, President Ronald Reagan declared in television ads and campaign stops across the nation that it was “Morning in America” again, that his administration had restored the United States to its rightful place as the “shining city on a hill,” that our best days were yet to come. Running for reelection in 2020, President Donald Trump inexplicably, wrongly, and ridiculously tweeted that the Governor of Virginia supports the execution of babies. No, it isn’t morning in America, but it is certainly long past time to have some deep, introspective mourning in America. This is a nation built upon myth, one whose very foundations have always been rickety, the brilliant goodness of its structure corrupted, plagued, and rotted by how far the United States has always been from its cherished and genuinely exemplary ideals. Confronting our greatest national challenges in generations—the pandemic, economic calamity, racial injustice, climate change—our greatest national hypocrisies are also thrust into stark relief. Black and brown citizens are more likely to die from Covid-19, or to face ruinous decisions between paying the rent and eating dinner, or to be murdered by the police, or to live in neighborhoods that will be devastated by climate inaction. For Black, brown, gay, female, immigrant, and Indigenous Americans, the United States has never lived up to its grand promise. In truth, it was never really morning in America for them—and it still isn’t.
It is time to grieve for this nation—not because it is irreparable—but because she is lost, left to wander without guidance, cast adrift and unmoored from the pillars upon which she was founded. An America where peaceful protesters are accused of sedition and teargassed so the president can snap a photo with an upside-down Bible is not an America that can credibly claim the mantle of global leadership, nor is it one that any citizen should be comfortable or proud to call home. So, yes, this is a moment for mourning in America, to absorb the abject losses—of life, of standing, of character, of decency—inflicted upon her in the last year. It is also a time to reckon and think deeply about what sort of nation the United States ought to be, about how to fashion our democracy into one that actually accords itself with its stated principles, about whether this is really the best our country can do.