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At a Critical Juncture: A Reflection by Dr Eric Derr

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In the United States, Memorial Day is always observed on the last Monday in May to honour and mourn the memory of the men and women who served in the United States Military. Memorial Day is also a time to reflect on the memory of deceased loved ones by visiting and putting flowers on graves, gathering with family and friends for outdoor activities and adorning houses and flagpoles across the country with the Stars and Stripes. For me, this Memorial Day was inherently different. It was not different because I live 6,203 km away from my beloved Iowa; I have lived in Ireland for the past decade. It was different because this Memorial Day, and the week since, has caused me to question whether a majority of the American people still believe in the core fundamental principles of American democracy: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

COVID-19 and the federal government’s inability to develop and implement a fifty-state strategy has exasperated my feelings. The President of the United States stated on 14 March 2020, ‘We’re using the full power of the federal government to defeat the virus.’ Since that date, I have watched my nation’s death toll soar to over 100,000. A nation comprising 4.25% of the world’s population accounts for just under one-third of the world’s total COVID-19 deaths; that is not a successful strategy. As a result, the unemployment rate has reached nearly 25% and the tribalism of American politics has turned what should have been an apolitical issue, pulling together to combat a health crisis, into partisan political grandstanding.

The partisan political grandstanding engaged by President Trump and his sycophants has been brazen. Trump has attacked the Democrats and the media for causing unwarranted hysteria, encouraged protests against governors that are following HIS Administration’s own public health guidelines and, more fundamentally, prioritised the economic fallout of COVID-19 over the ongoing public health crisis. On the face of it, this is what we have come to expect from this president; none of this behaviour is new. However, as COVID-19 continues to ravage communities across the United States, the emerging data accentuates the very real socio-economic divide that exists in the United States, largely drawn along the lines of colour. The push to re-open the American economy without a national strategy is not because the virus is under control or our understanding of the virus is better, it is because the hardest hit people and communities are those members of society considered most dispensable.

As the death toll approached and surpassed the 100,000 mark in the United States, the entire world witnessed the senseless murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department. George Floyd’s death has re-cast a bright light on the deep-rooted racial inequity that exists in the United States. These protestors are not only asking for the police officers responsible for the murder of George Floyd to be held accountable, they are demanding justice; there is a difference. Demanding justice is about rooting out the systemic racism that exists in the American justice system and promoting a society that is firmly committed to freedom, constantly pursuing justice and demonstrates a deep respect for human dignity. These last words were spoken by President Lyndon B. Johnson on 2 July 1964 when he signed into law the Civil Rights Act (1964); fifty-six years later we continue to wait.

As many people around the world are doing, I wake up each morning and turn on the news to witness further protests and violence across the United States; protests and violence that we have seen before. I open up Facebook and read posts that contain the hashtag ‘alllivesmatter’ and see images of Martin Luther King Junior with the following words planted over his picture ‘Burned Nothing, Attacked No One. Changed the World.’ On the surface, these messages appear positive. We know that all human life matters and we know that Martin Luther King Junior was an agent of change. However, I cannot help but wonder if these posts have a more sinister meaning. Perhaps these posts are being shared unwittingly, and without malice, but I get the sense that they are reflective of the pervasive racism that exists in the United States.

The United States is at a critical juncture, and this Autumn will forever dictate its ability to return to, as President Abraham Lincoln called, and historian Jon Meacham has written about, ‘the better angels of our nature’. The United States can continue to travel down its current path which will only accelerate the demise of Madisonian Democracy and permanently alter the course of American history. Or it can change direction and forge a new path that attempts to realise the core fundamental principles of American democracy: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I want to believe that the American people will choose the latter path and change direction, but there remains this nagging feeling in my gut that it is too late.

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