There are times when an image seems so fraught with significance that it brings me up short. On 9/11, it wasn’t so much all the video of the World Trade Center towers aflame and then crumbling as if brought down by controlled implosions, which took a long time to process, and seemed unreal – “just like in a movie” was everybody’s immediate reaction, mine included – it was this seemingly insignificant, transient, blurry shot of something flying over Washington in the aftermath of the Pentagon being struck:
A few journalists took puzzled note of the odd-looking plane as it circled low and slow over the city, and some traumatized survivors exiting the rubble feared, upon seeing it, that it might be another hijacked airliner about to prosecute a follow-on attack. None of them knew what it was.
I did. Being a student of such things, I recognized it immediately as an air force E-4B, with its unmistakeable bright white colouring and unusual hump on the upper fuselage, just aft of the cockpit. An E-4B is an extensively modified 747, stuffed with hardened electronics and communications systems, which is meant to serve in times of dire national emergency as an “airborne command post”, that is, a means of exercising command and control over America’s military, and in particular its nuclear forces, should the ordinary chain of command be devastated by surprise attack. Its existence is meant to support deterrence by putting potential adversaries on notice that the United States can’t be caught with its pants down and “decapitated” by any sort of “bolt out of the blue” attack. There might be nothing left on the ground but smoking holes where the President and all his Generals used to be, but that wouldn’t stop the United States from functioning sufficiently to retaliate in kind. Whoever was left in the chain of command would issue the necessary orders from the air.
So appalling were the scenarios in which such an airborne command node might be needed, that other components of an extensive system of associated airborne assets were once managed under a program ominously dubbed “Operation Looking Glass”. This was supposedly owing to their ability to mirror the command and control functions of the military’s ground based systems, but was actually, I’ve always suspected, an acknowledgement that if their use ever became necessary, all bets were off, logic was out the window, all reality was shattered, and like Alice we would have gone, so to speak, through the nuclear looking glass.
Seeing one of those Doomsday Planes aloft, being used for real, brought it all home to me. They didn’t know how bad this was going to get. It might not have been over. This was no movie. This was actually happening. It really was that bad.
I felt the same sort of jolt this morning, looking at video and pictures of USNS Comfort entering New York harbour. The Comfort is an enormous medical ship, a fully-equipped thousand bed hospital that floats, maintained by the US Navy for use in overseas mass casualty events – all-out wars or other military interventions involving severe US casualties in need of immediate treatment. They have a secondary role of helping out in natural disasters, presumably occurring in foreign lands. Comfort and her sister ship USNS Mercy, now on its way to Los Angeles, spend most of their time in ready reserve, but when things get really hairy they’re activated and deployed, as they were, for example, during Operation Desert Storm, and in response to the massive earthquakes that devastated Haiti in 2010.
They are, then, “break glass in case of severe emergency” assets. One doesn’t expect to see either of them sailing into NYC for anything except maybe a port call during a training mission. Yet here was Comfort coming into harbour on a mission of mercy, passing beneath the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge, not just to visit, but because she’s needed. Desperately. For real. Not in some distant Third World hellscape devastated by tsunamis or earthquakes, but right there in the greatest city in America, where it’s reached the point that the addition of a thousand extra hospital beds is a necessary, if wholly insufficient, step in meeting New York’s medical needs as the pandemic rages.
It really is that bad.
This is a bracing, bucket-of-cold-water-in-the-face reality with which the current President, sadly if predictably, has obviously not come to terms. His daily briefings are all bluster and theatrics, almost ritualized affairs in which his role, supported by his captive experts, is mainly to placate the masses with lies. When everybody’s seated and paying attention the clown does his little dance, before exiting to let his loyal and humble servant, the incredibly life-like Mike Pence, wrap everything up with a praise session in which Dear Leader is once again commended for his superb, nay visionary, handling of the crisis. The assembled reporters, being reporters, sometimes try to burst the balloon with tough questions, damn their black hearts, but it comes to nought. They know it’s futile. They pose their questions anyway. Some are game enough to bring up third party reports that belie what Mad King Donald is claiming, while others ask His Majesty to explain, if please he would, whatever it was he said last night on Hannity’s show, or the random thoughts he spewed at those virtually insensate but well-coiffed couch muffins on this morning’s Fox and Friends.
This makes Donald fume. You can see him thinking: those nasty, nasty bastards. Always negative and mean. Always going for the “gotcha”. Their snide and impertinent queries are of course treated with the derision and outrage they deserve, while discordant and uncomfortable purported facts, like the supposed shortage of personal protective equipment in hospitals at the epicentres of the pandemic, are ignored or outright denied. It isn’t true! If it is true, it isn’t his fault! Yesterday, flailing about for somebody to blame, Donald insinuated that medical staff in New York might be hoarding gowns and surgical masks and selling them on the black market – how else could such things be in short supply? What’s that you say – because before the virus slammed into the US, the State Department raided the stockpile and sent close to 18 tons of the stuff to China as part of Trump’s ongoing charm offensive to win over President Xi? Lies! Threatening, mean-spirited, unsubstantiated slander! Bad reporter! Fake news!
Plus, oh yeah, Obama did it. Obama is to blame.
You almost expect him to bring up Hillary’s goddam e-mails. Whatever it takes to deflect and distract. It’s all just one big PR exercise, while typically the gravity of the situation, the awful reality that thousands upon tens of thousands are going to die, entirely eludes Donald, as perhaps it would any unintelligent, narcissistic sociopath. He’s not even clever enough to fake it. His sole motivation, as transparently as ever, is to skate out from under whatever trouble he’s in, and also, since the gang’s all here, to brag about how almost indescribably great he is, and what a fabulous job he’s doing. Yesterday he stressed how his experts had predicted that over two million might perish if nothing at all was done, and how much worse it would have been if he’d decided, as lots of people advised him, to just ride out the crisis, “ride it like a cowboy, just ride that sucker right through”. That’s what they said! But he didn’t take that advice! No, he, the Great and Munificent Trump, decided to heed his experts and recommend an extended period of social distancing, so now the death toll would be much lower. In fact if, say, 200,000 perished, that’s way better than two million, so he will have done a great job. Compare and contrast, people. Do the arithmetic.
As the death toll in NYC passed a thousand last night, this is what Donald was Tweeting:
Sitting out here in the real world, beyond the gilded gates of the La-La Land where Trump holds court, the idea that Donald even thinks he has the time to sit on the crapper all night, sending Tweet after self-aggrandizing Tweet, is so upsetting that you might not have the stamina to also feel sick at the drivel he’s merrily Tweeting. What consumes him? What seems so important that the masses have to be informed? His ratings! He’s still as popular as was in his days barking at the dummies on The Apprentice! Look at me!! I’m as big as The Bachelor!!
He just wants all this to go away. He wants the economy to boom again, and the stock market to bounce back, because after all it’s an election year and he has to get re-elected, doesn’t he? Until things get back to normal, he’ll engage in whatever tiresome chores are necessary to keep his numbers up. He’ll give his daily pressers. He’ll talk to Hannity. He’ll smile and wave against the backdrop of relief workers and first responders. It was in this spirit that Trump visited Norfolk last Saturday, there to facilitate the photo-op of him seeing off the Comfort as it set sail for New York. It looked good for the rubes and MAGA types. He’s still convinced, perhaps not wrongly, that he can gull the suckers again, and figured it might further boost his favourables if he could be seen being all Presidential, mustering resources and dispatching the troops and such.
Other than that, the sight of the great white ship as it embarked didn’t mean anything to him at all.