The remembrances of Sept. 11, 2001, over the weekend sit in contrast to how Malheur County is enduring the pandemic.

Former President George W. Bush prompts the comparison. He spoke in Pennsylvania, where hijacked Flight 93 crashed into a field instead of the U.S. Capitol. He honored those aboard that jetliner who acted selflessly, rising to serve a greater cause then themselves.

“We learned that bravery is more common than imagined,” Bush said.

But he also noted today’s social environment. As do so many of us, he sees the deep divides. He is worth quoting again:

“Malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”

A naked appeal to anger, fear and resentment.

Nothing so encapsulates what is tangling us up these days when it comes to Covid.

And that is so disastrous.

Once again, we have a common enemy – not each other, but the virus that chews through our communities.

Not long after Sept. 11, the conspiracy theories started to flow. This wasn’t al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden’s work. No, it was the U.S. government. It was another country running a “false flag” operation. The Twin Towers were destroyed by carefully placed explosives, not jetliners roaring in at full speed.

Most Americans shrugged off such talk. They united in cause, in purpose, in resiliency: You will not destroy what makes the U.S. strong.

Now, today, we have no such unity. Conspiracy theories, instead of being shrugged off, are embraced by too many as acceptable truth. Meantime, pleading medical professionals are ignored. Public officials trying to save lives are ridiculed. School boards get shouted at.

And day by day, the toll mounts. We spend more time in this community fighting with each other over masks and mandates than we do in uniting to stop this killer.

There is no mystery about this. Look around Malheur County. Is there a single uniting leader? Is there anyone taking the flag out front, willing to mark the course out of this pandemic, to call for common sacrifice, to call for bravery of action that can save lives, spare heart ache and keep the community open? Sadly, no.

Instead, too many leaders are making their role to divide, not unite. Let’s grant that they are acting from moral certainty. Still, their actions are not saving one life. Their bluster keeps not one grandmother or son or spouse out of intensive care.

Rather, they jump onto a tree stump and yell. They wrap themselves in liberty, their speeches and letters providing no relief to the harm that marches over their constituents.

For them, this is about “me” not “us.” In Bush’s words, they stoke anger, fear and resentment.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe, as likeable as they come, is a leader of the pot-stirrers. He’s written to Gov. Kate Brown about vaccines and masks. He’s taken time to gather signatures for what he surely knows is venting without result.

State Sen. Lynn Findley and state Rep. Mark Owens, able combatants for the interests of rural Oregon, also go on the attack. No vaccine mandates, they say. What then? They don’t say. They throw rocks, but never say what they will do to replace the political glass they want to shatter.

And the Malheur County Court – Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioners Don Hodge and Ron Jacobs – took the easy path of piping up “me too” with their own letter to the governor. Their letter, as the others, goes on about local control. But they have been on the bench most of the pandemic, not exhibiting the leadership needed to rally the people of Malheur County to common purpose.

But Sarah Poe, the director of a short-staffed county health department, isn’t a politician, and she has been a lonely voice for reason.

From early on, she has laid out the facts. She has made clear the dire nature of Covid in the county. She should know. She sees the reports every day.

“There is more hardship than ever,” she told the Enterprise last week. “We have a vaccine. About a third of our community is protected. People who are getting really sick and dying of this disease are not vaccinated.”

“Sick and dying.” Let those words sink in. Is this what we, as a community, find acceptable? That we’d rather not band together in battle, but rather split into factions that drain and weaken resolve?

Since elected leaders won’t act, it’s up to each resident of Malheur County to stop and take stock. The overwhelming evidence is that vaccines will bring this pandemic to an end. Is it perfect? No. Neither is the flu vaccine that thousands willingly take each year.

This isn’t about giving up liberty or individual rights. This isn’t some fantastical interest in “the government” of controlling us all. This isn’t about who can shout the loudest, cart around the biggest and meanest signs, or who can exhibit the bravado of “if it gets me, it gets me.”

This is about sparing Malheur County what Poe aptly describes as “more hardship than ever.” That doesn’t have to be. We can, we must, unite. Bravery is now stepping up to a hard choice, a necessary choice, in joint effort to rescue our community. – LZ 

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