Listening to Dr. Deborah Birx and the other former officials of the CDC on CNN this past Sunday evening (March 28), their failure of leadership vis a vis the Coronavirus was stunning. There were a number of justifications they might have considered in their staying in their positions when they knew the serious nature of the virus, as Trump knew in March as he revealed in his confessions to The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.
None of these reasons, however, rises to the level of ethical justifiability.
Yes, at last they acknowledged publicly the failure of the Trump administration’s policies. Dr. Birx admitted that beyond the first 100,000 American deaths (that were unavoidable, she said), every one of the next 450,000 deaths was unnecessary had Trump and his administration taken the lead, as President Biden is now doing, to set and advocate national emergency health standards, invoke and activate the War Powers Act to release government funds and retool American government and industry to do what is necessary to fight the virus, and then to lead a campaign to persuade the entire nation to join together on behalf of everyone’s best interests and thereby limit the death, pain and suffering.
Their staying quiet, refusing to speak out, not rallying responsible parties in government and health-care to do what was right on behalf of the American people, not resisting the bullying President and his henchmen, and failing to resign their positions if necessary, were contrary to everything I know about Judaeo-Christian moral tradition.
The Talmud (circa 500 CE) set the ethical standard of how to cope with obvious wrong-doing this way: “One who is able to protest against a wrong that is being done in his/her family, his/her city, his/her nation or the world and doesn’t do so is held accountable for that wrong being done.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 54b)
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel echoed that position when he said famously: “…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Former President Trump, Trump administration officials, Republican politicians (congressional leaders, governors, mayors, and city council members), and some Democrats too, and former CDC officials who followed Trump’s lead all are guilty of “standing by while others bleed” (Leviticus 19:16).
We so obviously lacked courageous moral leadership this past year. Thankfully, we have a new president, responsible leadership in Congress and many states and cities, health-care officials throughout the country, and many religious and civic leaders who are our modern examples of “profiles in courage.” They deserve our thanks.