After September 11 and the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, I remember going down to the sheep barn in the dark one evening and looking up at the night sky. There wasn’t one blinking light to be seen overhead. You couldn’t fly anywhere in this country. An entire industry was grounded by an attack in which over 3,000 people died, the deadliest terror attack in world history.

I commuted to the newspaper office in Bellevue, and in the days immediately

following the attack I would suddenly cloud

up and sit there staring and weeping. I couldn’t help it.

The economy was knocked back on its heels, there was an outpouring of patriotic expressions, flags were everywhere and there was an identifiable, if elusive, enemy to focus on. That event morphed into the longest military effort in American history. Through it all we have managed to have guns and butter both.

This national emergency is unlike anything the country has experienced in perhaps a century, but it’s not like we did not have some advance warning it could happen.

There is an astonishing 2004 quadrennial appraisal from the National Intelligence Council of what could be a potential challenge to this country by the year 2020, and the report identifies that threat as a pandemic. 

No one is seeking bragging rights for being so prescient but the warning has been out there for 16 years. And that warning of pandemic was repeated over and over by the intelligence community. To those of us far removed from such strategic questions a pandemic seems almost quaint. Sort of like a dormant volcano or tectonic plate shift. It’s awful in its consequences but really, how often do they happen?

After all, the last pandemic of any consequence was in 1918, when the Spanish Flu killed at least 20 million worldwide.

If it’s true people plan for the next war by preparing for the last one, we are in for a terrible slog against coronavirus.

This is an organism 500 times smaller in diameter than a human hair, a freak of nature that is a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat able to survive in the living cells of a host. 

There is plenty of blame to be spread across the entire planet most likely for the catastrophic speed in which this virus infected every continent save Antarctica.

John Barry, author of “The Great Influenza,” the riveting account of the Spanish Flu pandemic, believes the onset of that event and our current challenge show we’ve learned nothing in the century since. 

While I am loath to let Donald Trump off the hook for the feckless leadership he has exhibited for the most part the scale of critical supplies needed and the potential for literally decimating the corps of health workers through infection is overwhelming. Now we need thousands, tens of thousands, millions, tens of millions for hospital items. States cannot sustain this effort alone; it is the federal government that is needed to lead the massive response required. 

Both of these pandemics were initially met with happy talk, boosterism.

And the worst is still ahead of us. Barry’s book describes the fate of two cities, Philadelphia and St. Louis. It was World War I and efforts to raise support for war bonds was linked to a big parade in the City of Brotherly Love. A political hack refused to cancel the event on the advice of health officials. The thousands lining the parade route helped spread the silent killer while in St. Louis a similar parade was canceled. The rates of infection, and death, were starkly different.

Now New Orleans is the new Philadelphia. No one stepped in to stop Mardi Gras and now Louisiana has the highest concentration of coronavirus infection in the world.

This organism is relentless in how it has revealed and exposed and overwhelmed system after system in this country. It has idled jetliners, cruise ships, public libraries, food and tavern businesses. It has shown how ill prepared we are to handle the tidal wave of patients. And we have had to factor in a president’s happy talk, essentially misinformation, on a daily basis and seek actual, factual information from experts who are granted supporting roles to this “very stable genius.”

The prospect of a health care system overwhelmed by critically ill coronavirus patients is a very real possibility and yet Trump wants to fill the churches for Easter. 

We are going to be tested, in the sense our courage and faith, by this invisible enemy. I think there will be happier days but I doubt it will be business as usual.

This challenge may help resolve the ongoing debate in this country if healthcare is a right, or a privilege. It may finally do what conferencing and negotiating hasn’t accomplished — set in place methods for allocating key medical equipment and supplies. 

Until a vaccine appears on the horizon, until we learn and accept that sheltering in place is capable of slowing the spread of this virus as the Chinese have demonstrated we are going to have to endure what seems like defeat at times. As Winston Churchill said about us: “You can depend on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.”