Whenever anything occurs, there is “responsibility.” If it’s bad, it’s called “blame;” if good, it’s “taking credit.” With the COVID-19 virus, there is, as always, both.
Blame of leadership
First the blame. The American president, again as always, is the final arbiter of everything that happened here and the first to blame. That is nearly always the case. Southerners still blame Lincoln for the Civil War, Hoover is everywhere blamed for the Depression, Truman for the Cold War, Johnson for Vietnam, etc. This is all correct, to a degree. Even if they happened to be in office when the event occurred, that is sufficient for blame. Or, in a greater context, “responsibility.”
President Harry Truman famously had a motto on his desk, “The Buck Stops Here.” That says a lot.
Admiral Husband Kimmel, in command at Pearl Harbor when the attack occurred, immediately tore off the shoulder boards on his uniform, declaring that he would no longer have use for them. He was right. After absorbing blame for Japan’s surprise assault for most of his life, he died with the stigma in 1986. In 1999, the full Senate voted to exonerate him, calling Kimmel the “last victim” of Pearl Harbor.
The Pearl Harbor attack was soon followed by a series of Congressional and other investigations into the responsibility of President Roosevelt. There was a conspiracy theory that FDR, somehow, knew of Japanese plans and secretly kept quiet in order to bring the country into a war it never wanted. Over ten separate hearings, including a Joint Congressional Hearing, conducted years of testimony, tens of thousands of documents, hundreds of witnesses, but never found the “smoking gun.” FDR remains “innocent until proven guilty,” but the theory persists to this day.
Partisan Blame and President Trump
In assessing blame, there are several degrees. The most popular, and the most damaging, is called “partisan,” meaning “instinctive,” or “by nature.” In politics, partisanship is the normal, almost “second nature.” All presidents, parties, officials, etc. are subject to this, unavoidably. With the current virus, Trump is no exception, as daily accusations from the print and TV media locate him, and him alone, as to blame for the global crisis that has killed in the hundreds of thousands. One reporter went so far as to call the virus “Trump’s Vietnam.”
Hyperbole aside, there is some merit in blaming the American president, as he most certainly did/did not do something that could have mitigated/erased the spread. That said, is this sufficient? When firefighters investigate a fire, they go directly to the source. Maybe they didn’t extinguish it fast enough, but to determine the cause they need the origin. When police investigate a crime, they need to inspect the “scene” to get “evidence.” Then they investigate to find a “suspect.” Who’s to blame: the arsonist/suspect or the investigators?
Maybe a little of both, but the source/scene is always the location of “cause,” and the investigators are helpless without evidence from there.
Partisan blame is frustrating, principally because of its nature. Anything so automatic, so instinctive has to be suspect, if only due to its origin. Perhaps the accusations “jump” to conclusions; perhaps they “rush” to judgment. But any judgment does not enhance itself if there is no “jump,” nor “rush.” It means almost nothing if there was no need for either; if they were already “there” from the beginning.
Anyone who was plotting Trump’s impeachment prior to inauguration cannot be taken seriously if they claim that he is to blame for this virus. The slogan “the duty of the opposition is to oppose” is true enough; it simply does not belong in any “true detective” work. In this respect, politics is an artificial world, without responsibility or blame. It’s a good thing that both police and firefighters are supposed to be “nonpolitical.”
Partisan blame may even be correct, insofar as it goes, but that is the problem. It’s also called “tunnel vision.”
Now for “responsibility.” What causes things? Take war, for example.
By 1898, Spain had controlled Cuba for about 400 years. On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, killing 250 sailors aboard. On April 21, the U.S. declared war on Spain, under the slogan “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain.” The American media controlled opinion with its “yellow press,” egging an aroused public to a fever pitch. Publisher William Randolph Hearst allegedly told his reporters, “you furnish the stories, I’ll furnish the war.”
Official inquiries as to the cause of the explosion were inconclusive. In 1974, Admiral Hyman Rickover led a Navy inquiry that finally named an internal fire in the ship’s engines. The immediate cause of the Spanish-American War: a complete fabrication. Yet all Americans blamed the government in Madrid, 3,000 miles away.
In 1919, the Versailles Treaty blamed Germany as being “solely responsible” for World War I (Article 231). That sentence alone was probably the most damaging single line ever incorporated into a human document, costing eventually hundreds of millions of lives and creating, effectively, the remainder of the Twentieth Century.
Article 231, once heralded a beginning of the “war to end war,” has been amended and reversed many times since and is now generally regarded as the prime example of the tragic result of what now is known as the “blame game.” Today, reflections now distribute the First World War as the result of a number of factors in the European system, of which Germany was primary but hardly alone.
Responsibility for COVID-19
Where does that leave us today? In assessing responsibility/blame for the virus, where do we go? Where would Sherlock Holmes go? To the source!
Where did the virus originate, where is the “scene of the crime”? Peru? Indonesia? Hungary? Nigeria? The White House? All of the above?
The scientific verdict is unanimous: the virus came from Wuhan province, China. Being “unscientific,” that is all, I for one, need to know. Thus, we have a “scene,” and that is where all investigations begin.
Any investigation of COVID-19 should be “constructive” in tone, not punitive. Yet, at the same time, there is a “responsibility” to locate and, as well, a degree of “blame.” The virus is not a war; the origins were not deliberate. Still, there should be what might be called an “acknowledgment,” or at best a “confession,” a procedure that can lead to “case closed.”
How do we get there? A responsible American president would lead the Western allies, all 29 NATO plus others affected, and collectively announce to China: we know you did it, you know you did it, so let us help you help yourself so this doesn’t happen again.