Fiona Hill knows something about how democracies die, and she worries that ours may be in critical condition. The working-class girl from an English mining town immigrated to America and became a Russia expert, advising Republican and Democratic presidents alike. Hill rose to prominence during the 2019 investigation into The Former Guy's attempt to extort Ukraine into announcing an "investigation" into President Joe Biden in exchange for the unfreezing of military aid.
She has had time to reflect on what has become of her chosen homeland, and she is worried. "I feel like we're at a really critical and very dangerous inflection point in our society," she told Politico recently. "I have a lot of friends who are immigrants like myself who have been here for a long time, who came from many, many different places. And they say, 'This is not the America I came to. This is not the America we chose to come to.'"
The Trump presidency may be over for now, but the Trump years are not. The stew of race-based hatred, white nationalism and domestic extremism that spilled out from under a rock over the past six years is very much with us. A mark of the jeopardy we are in is that the anger and the misinformation exploited and fomented during that period is now directed at those to whom we owe the most — our teachers and health care providers.
A surge in threats against educators because of public health measures enacted to protect students and teachers alike from COVID-19 led the National School Board Association to appeal to Biden on Sept. 29. "America's public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat," it wrote, asking for federal assistance "to protect our students, school board members and educators who are susceptible to acts of violence ... because of threats to their districts, families and personal safety." News of online hatred and outright assaults in response to protocols aimed simply at preventing the spread of highly contagious, potentially deadly illness reaches us on a regular basis.
In Ohio, one school board member was warned: "We are coming after you and all the members of the (Board of Education). You are forcing (students) to wear masks for no reason in the world other than control. And for that you will pay dearly." In Tennessee, a student who recounted that his grandmother, a teacher, had died of COVID-19 and who called for masks in schools was mocked by a sneering audience. Citing "an increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers in our nation's public schools," the Department of Justice announced the formation of a task force to combat the growing problem. As for the collapse of decency that underpins this conduct, there is no task force capable of remedying that.
Our health care providers, physically and emotionally ravaged by COVID-19, are being subjected to similar mistreatment. Fury at masking or testing requirements, restrictions on visitations due to the virus and long waits in emergency rooms thanks to the pandemic's toll has resulted in what Deb Bailey of Northeast Georgia Health Systems calls "a huge increase in violence against our health care workers." Hospital workers "have been cursed at, screamed at, threatened with bodily harm and even had knives pulled on them," Jane McCurley of Texas' Methodist Healthcare System told the Texas Tribune. "It is escalating. It's just a handful at each facility who have been extremely abusive. But there is definitely an increasing number of occurrences every day." At one Missouri hospital, where assaults have tripled since COVID-19's onset, hundreds of staff have been given panic buttons to bring security officers running in the event of an attack.
Biden has both preached civility and practiced it. But he is all but powerless to reverse America's slide into incivility and its descent into civic decay, which are at the root of what is playing out in schools, hospitals and elsewhere. For that, for better or worse, we're dependent on one another.
Jeff Robbins, an attorney specializing in the First Amendment, is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.