Shelter Island Reporter editorial: Numbers

Public and personal obsessions emerge in a crisis. During this COVID era we’re all living through, we no longer mock germaphobes — we’ve become them. Trying to entangle the suddenly vivid and puzzling dreams so many of us are experiencing during the pandemic, we’ve become pre-occupied Freudians or soothsayers. And then there’s our obsession with numbers, fixating over confirmed cases, deaths, ventilators, tests and recoveries.

One number seen everywhere recently, was that the death toll in the United States from COVID-19 was approaching the number of American fatalities in the Vietnam war. Then, the pandemic’s victims equaled the number of dead service members.

And then, of course, the pandemic’s deaths swiftly passed by the number of names on the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington.

For a few moments in our national consciousness, the 58,220 Americans who perished in Vietnam were back with us. For those who are old enough to remember, it was impossible not to also recall the Vietnam era when, similar to this time, a nation was divided, death and dying was on the front page, and head-spinning changes were nothing more than the ordinary day-to-day.

Leading up to Memorial Day 2020, we are given the opportunity to remember those who died in Vietnam, and to think of other numbers, of those fallen in all of America’s wars. We’ll remember Sgt. James Wilson Jr., the only Islander to die so far away from home in 1967, but it’s imperative we take time to dwell on those who died with him.

Our nation, from the beginning, has relied on the bedrock foundation of words to tell us who we are, what we stand for and what we must remember.

On Memorial Day 2009, President Barack Obama eulogized those who died wearing American uniforms: “If the fallen could speak to us, what would they say? Would they console us? Perhaps they might say that while they could not know they’d be called upon to storm a beach through a hail of gunfire, they were willing to give up everything for the defense of our freedom; that while they could not know they’d be called upon to jump into the mountains of Afghanistan and seek an elusive enemy, they were willing to sacrifice all for their country; that while they couldn’t possibly know they would be called to leave this world for another, they were willing to take that chance to save the lives of their brothers and sisters in arms.”

This Memorial Day, always one of the Island’s best days, is changed, with no public ceremonies. But nothing can change the numbers.