For most Americans living today, the idea of shared national sacrifice is a collective abstraction, a memory transmitted by a grandfather or transmitted through a book or film.
Since World War II, when people carried ration books with stamps that allowed them to buy meat, sugar, butter, cooking oil and gasoline, the purchase of cars, firewood and nylon was restricted, when factories converted the manufacture of automobiles in tanks, jeeps and torpedoes, when men were summoned and women were volunteers in the war effort, the entire nation was asked to sacrifice itself for a greater good.
The era of civil rights, Vietnam, the Gulf wars, 9/11 and the financial crisis involved suffering, even death, but did not require universal sacrifice. President George W. Bush encouraged people to buy things after the terrorist attacks to help the economy – "patriots in the mall," some called it – before the entire war effort was underway. People lost jobs and homes in the financial crisis, but there was no call for a response from the community.
Now, with the coronavirus, it is as if a natural disaster has occurred in several places at the same time. Millions are likely to lose their jobs. The companies will close. Schools closed. Thousands will die. Leaders are ordering citizens to be isolated to stop the virus from marching.
Suddenly, over the course of a few weeks, John F. Kennedy's injunction "ask what you can do for your country" came to life. Will Americans step up?
"This is a new moment," said Jon Meacham, historian and author of "The Soul of America".
"Prolonged sacrifice has not been something we have been asking for since World War II," said Meacham. "There was a kind of perpetual surveillance in the Cold War – what President Kennedy called" the long twilight struggle "- but living with the fear of nuclear war is quite abstract compared to living with the fear of a virus and a possible economic depression ”.
The second world war involved an enemy and a common goal, with clear sides spread across the world. While President Donald Trump sometimes tried to summon that sentiment about attacking the coronavirus, he abruptly changed course, suggesting Monday that the restrictions he sought in American life could be as long-lasting as his slogan about "15 days to slow spread. ",” Even when others warn that most of the country is about to be hit by a drop in new cases.
In Congress, some speak of coming together, while others criticize their party opposites. On Monday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Blamed the initial blame for Congress's lack of action entirely at the feet of Democrats.
"A request to do anything becomes a point of attack, and we are always 10 steps behind where we should be in big legislative deals," said Julian Zelizer, professor of history at Princeton. "Such an intense polarization in a time of crisis – with a president who is not interested in time-tested forms of governance and unity work – makes this much more difficult."
This has not been universal. Governor Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) moved quickly to end most activities in his state and begged Ohioans to help.
"We don't face an enemy like we are facing today in 102 years," said DeWine recently. "We need to go back to the 1918 flu epidemic. We are certainly at war. … In times of war, we must make sacrifices and thank all citizens of Ohio for what they are doing and what they are not doing. You are doing a huge difference, and that difference will save lives. ”
As a nation, Americans are used to seeing areas of the country destroyed by hurricanes, floods, fires and blizzards. But there is a time of reconstruction and renovation. The coronavirus, with its rapid spread, is giving Americans a public health Katrina that knows few borders or boundaries, although some parts of the country are suffering much more than others.
Until today, for many, sacrifices were merely inconvenient. There are no restaurants or cinemas. Perhaps the need to buy gym equipment, because the gym has closed. Or leave Amazon's cardboard box outside for 24 hours to make sure the virus doesn't enter the house.
A week after being told to work from home may seem like a work vacation. A week without being able to work is frustrating, but potentially reversible.
But when a week bleeds in a month or more, how will we react?
“We used to tax in times of crisis. Not now, "said Zelizer." We asked people to ration in times of crisis. Not now. We ask people to serve in times of crisis. Not now. So this is a radical change. The point is that Americans may have no choice. "
For many, the choices are personal and painful. Mrs Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) Is unable to see her parents or in-laws in the near future because she may have been exposed to the virus. But she is also seeing the impact of the virus in many other ways that are far more damaging.
"I think we are in the early stages of people who understand what the sacrifice is," said Spanberger. "People with loved ones in retirement homes are told that they cannot visit their loved ones. This takes them home. For people who have children, trying to explain why they can't go to school, don't have play dates, can't see friends , cannot see family members.
"It is this element of everyone that needs to disrupt their lives so that other people do not die," she said. "It's different from eating less meat because of the war or working in a factory because the husband is abroad. But you also can't get involved with the community, which makes things difficult. You can't rely on your social circle, church or school. All these things are taken from us, trying to keep people safe. "
With people being asked to sacrifice their jobs, their children's education, their ability to communicate with family and friends, Spanberger said: “the depth of empathy that this must be available and the strength of the concerns about these decisions must be unmatched . I don't see that, at least not from the administration. "
What the nation's leaders do or don't do will shape the course of the pandemic and its lethality. But it will be the Americans' willingness to sacrifice that may well matter more.
"In the end, this presents an excellent and convincing test of our national sense that we are exceptional, generous and resilient," said Meacham. “Maybe we are all of those things. One thing is certain: we are about to find out. "
Michael Tackett is deputy head of the Associated Press' Washington agency. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tackettdc