More than 3,800 Americans have died in the last two days from the coronavirus that has shut down America. That's more than the number of killed and wounded on 9/11 or at Pearl Harbor and it approaches the number of Americans killed on D-Day.
Such numbers are overwhelming. Sometimes if we want to understand the cost of war -- or a pandemic -- a single death illustrates the loss more clearly. Bobby Sands' death nearly four decades ago is a case in point.
Thirty-nine years ago today, Robert Gerard Sands -- he was always called "Bobby" -- was elected to Britain's Parliament as a representative from Northern Ireland. A soldier in the Provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army, Sands never took his seat in the House of Commons as member of the Sinn Fein party because he was behind bars in Long Kesh prison. By April 9, 1981, he was in a weakened condition owing to a hunger strike in protest of the government's decision to treat IRA inmates as common criminals rather than prisoners of war.
Bobby Sands led the hunger strike, which became international news, and he was the first die from it.
I usually write about U.S. history in this space, but this story had an American dimension to it, and I've written about it before. I reprise it now because it might also carry a relevant lesson for our times.
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The IRA hunger strike took place in a wing of Long Kesh known as H-block, and it shocked people not just on both sides of the Atlantic but around the world. If the ostensible issue was the IRA demand that its members be treated as prisoners of war, the larger context was a test of wills between the armed leaders of the Irish nationalist movement and the British government headed by Margaret Thatcher.
The infamous "hard men" of the IRA considered themselves soldiers. To Thatcher and the majority British people, they were bloodthirsty terrorists. Either way, they were not ordinary felons, and the hunger strike gave these men the upper hand in international public opinion.
The first to die was Bobby Sands, who began refusing food on March 1, 1981. He was dead within four weeks of his election to the House of Commons. Nine other hunger strikers would follow him to the grave.
Sands' funeral attracted a huge crowd, led to a surge in recruitment for the IRA, and attracted global media attention. One of those in attendance was Richard Ben Cramer, the London-based correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was making his name as an astute observer of politics and a gifted prose stylist. The opening sentence to Cramer's story on that funeral march is taught in journalism schools to this day:
"BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- In a grimy gray drizzle, under ragged black flags that lifted and waved balefully in the fitful air; to the wail of a single piper, on streets winding through charred and blasted brick spray-painted with slogans of hate; by silent tens of thousands, past fathers holding sons face-forward that they might remember the day, past mothers rocking and shielding prams that held tomorrow's fighters, past old men who blew their rheumy noses and remembered their own days of rage ... Bobby Sands was carried yesterday to a grave of raw Ulster mud."
Today, the "days of rage" have largely receded into the past, a merciful result of courageous diplomacy, the aftermath of 9/11, and a willingness on the part of Northern Ireland's protagonists to imagine a better future for themselves and their children. They were assisted in this effort by an American president, William Jefferson Clinton, whose claims of Irish heritage are sketchy, but whose commitment to peace was real.
As long ago as 1867, future prime minister William Gladstone had spoken of the "American dimension" to Britain's Irish problem. In the 1880s, Home Secretary William Harcourt had worried about the precise form that dimension would assume. When Irish rebellions were confined to Ireland, he noted, it was easy enough to quash them. "Now," he added, "there is an Irish nation in the United States, equally hostile, with plenty of money, absolutely beyond our reach."
By 1993, neither the leading members of the Irish diaspora in the United States, nor the president they had enlisted in their cause, were interested in armed insurrection. American voters were certainly not willing to back a group that used bombs and murder to further its political aims. But President Clinton was interested in demonstrating how U.S. influence had grown and matured in the ensuing century -- and could be used to solve intractable of political problems. The new president and his foreign policy advisers were more in sync with the aspirations espoused by Irish writer Tim Pat Coogan.
"Given American support, Ireland and England could be at peace," Coogan had written. "Ireland and England are both mother countries. There is a time in life when parents look to their children for support. That time is now."
I've used that quote before in this space, but lately I've been thinking about Tim Pat Coogan's counsel in a different way. The United States is no longer a young country, but our politics have become infantile. Maybe we never grew up. Maybe we did grow up and are getting senile. However the metaphor is framed, the depressing reality is that our own political system has become so sclerotic that America's two dominant political parties can manage to turn a global virus, a pandemic, into a political football. The media don't help. It's all sad and embarrassing and dangerous. But it's not clear who we can look to for support in our hour of need. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in the hospital fighting this virus. When Ireland's prime minister came to Washington for the annual St. Patrick's Day festivities, President Trump wouldn't join him on Capitol Hill for the traditional Irish-American lunch because Nancy Pelosi was hosting it. Then the taoiseach cut short his trip to avoid New York, which has been the U.S. epicenter of the pathogen.
But hyper-partisanship is its own kind of contagion. Who will help flatten the curve on that?
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.