How Americans failed each other as 600,000 died of COVID

Our tumultuous culture wars have added totally unnecessary insult to considerable injury.

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Anti-mask demonstrators stand outside the offices of the Palm Beach County School District during a recent school board meeting.


Monday was an ordinary day at the Big Bear grocery store in DeKalb County, Georgia, where 41-year-old Laquitta Willis worked as a cashier.

Just after lunch, 30-year-old Victor Lee Tucker Jr. entered the store. When he went to check out, Willis reportedly asked him to put his mask over his face.

According to police, Tucker left without his items, returned shortly thereafter, and fatally shot Willis.

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Such capricious and violent encounters in the time of COVID-19 have become an unfortunate side effect of the pandemic that just claimed its 600,000th victim in the United States. For more than a year-and-a-half, we’ve tried to navigate the treacherous waters not only of the virus itself and keeping our families safe, but of the tumultuous culture wars that have added totally unnecessary insult to considerable injury.

In Michigan last year, a Family Dollar store security guard was killed for telling a customer that her child needed to wear a mask to enter the store. She yelled and spit on him, and left, eventually returning with her husband and adult son, who allegedly pulled out a gun and shot the guard.

In New Mexico, two men were shot in a dispute at an auto shop over masks.

In the not-so-friendly skies, the Federal Aviation Administration reports a massive increase in disorderly conduct reports, a full 75% of which dealt with mask compliance refusals.

Some pastors in evangelical churches spread misinformation and profited off of the fear of their congregants.

Public health officials all over the country were harassed and threatened out of their jobs simply for suggesting or enforcing mask mandates in their municipalities. Women administrators in particular were stalked and sent death threats; many resigned for fear of their own safety.

In cities and small towns all over the country, anti-maskers harass their neighbors — even their children — for wearing masks. In Arlington, Virginia, a man filmed children wearing masks at a local playground, yelling, “Look at these kids — child abuse, child abuse, suffocation, suffocation.”

Of course, that idea was fomented by Tucker Carlson, who told his audience of millions on Fox News that “your response when you see children wearing masks when they play should be no different from your response to seeing someone beat a kid at Walmart.”

Needless to say, the right-wing media has spread lies, conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID-19, endangering the lives of many Americans. But many personalities on those airwaves have also stoked division, fear and hatred, spurred on by former President Trump to mock safety precautions, villainize doctors, sow distrust in science and politicize a pandemic. What they have chosen to do in this moment of crisis is shameful.

As a New Yorker living in Manhattan on 9/11, I saw things on that day that will never leave my brain, from men jumping off of buildings to loved ones sobbing in the streets. But I’ll never forget walking down Park Avenue just hours after the towers fell and watching a man run up to a Sikh cab driver in a turban, bang on his window, and irrationally scream at him, “YOU DID THIS!”

I cried in that moment and in many moments after, at seeing the worst of us come out amidst our fear and anger.

I’ve thought of that moment a lot during the last year-and-a-half, saddened by the inability and unwillingness among some to come together, put politics aside, harness our empathy and sense of community, and how we instead wage wars on each other. These wars have ravaged American communities as violently as the pandemic itself.

Republican lawmakers like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and others comparing mask-wearing and vaccination policies to the Holocaust, stoking conspiracy theories about mask ineffectiveness, claiming God doesn’t want you to wear a mask, invoking AIDS to flout mask requirements... I could go on and on. The willful ignorance combined with deliberate fearmongering, gaslighting, profiteering and politicizing of the very real pain and anguish Americans suffered this year is inexcusable and horrific.

Of course, just as there was after 9/11, Americans did come together in meaningful ways. Stories of sacrifice by health care workers and frontline workers of every stripe abound, as do stories of the generosity and compassion of teachers, food bank volunteers, churches and everyday Americans, reminding us that we can rise to the occasion and care for our neighbors. Those stories of everyday heroes hopefully outweigh the others.

But after 15 months of death and devastation, with many choosing to inflict more pain while we’re at our most vulnerable, it’s hard to look back on what seems to be finally approaching “behind us” and say we should be entirely proud of who we were at one of our darkest hours.

Was this America at its best? Or its worst?

S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.

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