The Atlantic

The Difference Between Feeling Safe and Being Safe

The pandemic has broken Americans’ understanding of what to fear.
Source: Nanna Heitmann / Magnum

On a normal day, the White House is one of the safest buildings in the world. Secret Service snipers stand guard on the roof, their aim tested monthly to ensure their accuracy up to 1,000 feet. Their heavily armed colleagues patrol the ground below and staff security checkpoints. Belgian Malinois guard dogs lie in wait for anyone who manages to jump the property’s massive iron fence.

But safety means something different in a pandemic. Over the past few days, several aides to Vice President Mike Pence, including his chief of staff, have tested positive for the coronavirus. The outbreak is the second in the White House in a month, after dozens of people, including President Donald Trump himself, tested positive following the apparent super-spreader event hosted by the administration to celebrate the Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

The outbreaks have been both utterly predictable and totally shocking. The Trump administration has consistently downplayed the severity of the coronavirus, encouraged Americans to resist safety measures, and promised that the pandemic is nearing its end. But the people orchestrating the country’s disastrous coronavirus response had no plausible deniability: The very best experts, information, and precautions were all available to them, even if they refused to pass that help on to others.

People will write books on everything Donald Trump did wrong during the pandemic, with explanations both personal and ideological for his administration’s often willful failures. But for a group of people for whom self-preservation has long been an obvious goal, their willingness to put themselves in optional danger, given all the resources at their disposal, can’t be completely explained by Trump’s lack of empathy or his advisers’ policy goals. It suggests that on top of everything

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