I Am My Brother’s Keeper

Curtis R. Joseph, Jr./Opinion

It is often through the most difficult of circumstances and the most trying of times that we learn life’s most valuable lessons. In the aftermath of committing one of history’s most heinous crimes, Cain is confronted with an opportunity for growth. By that, God presents Cain with the quintessential loaded question, “Where is thy brother, Abel?” At the time God asked the question, He knew full well what had transpired. He knew that Cain had slain his brother. Rather than seize the chance for redemption by owning up to his act, Cain opted, instead, to shirk any responsibility. His response has been etched in time. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was his indignant reply.

The answer to this singular question speaks volumes about our society. Simply put, before we arrive at the question of what is just and proper for me to do as it regards my brother, I must first answer the question of whether I even owe a duty at all with respect to my brother. If the question of duty is not answered affirmatively, then the balance of the query is rendered moot. History is filled with examples of moments in time when strangers answered the question of duty affirmatively and they, therefore, acted with compassion, love and respect for their fellow man.

It has been said that adversity doesn’t build character; rather, adversity reveals character. Although the quote is typically meant to apply to individuals, it is equally applicable when speaking of nations. Given the current situation involving COVID-19, our collective character is certainly being revealed. For every healthcare worker or other manner of “essential” worker, who has accepted their call to duty and braved the risks associated with life during these times, there are scores of people who simply refuse to adhere to basic practices that are likely to decrease overall exposure to the virus. Simply put, these individuals have made a conscious, deliberate decision that they owe no duty to the rest of us. How can that be so?

As is typically the case, history can be our guide. For, it is written that there is nothing new under the sun. That said, as an example, I offer the Bank Holiday that was instituted from March 6, 1933 through March 13, 1933. The nation had been reeling for several years as a consequence of the Great Depression. The matter was only compounded by the ensuing run on the banks by customers who rushed to withdraw deposits for fear that the banks would not be able to function.

At the darkest hour, leadership entered the picture. Newly inaugurated President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, signed the Emergency Banking Act, which sought to restore Americans’ confidence in the national banking system. However, it required all banking to cease for four days beginning on March 9, 1933 and, thereafter, recommence on March 13, 1933. The proposed measures gained bipartisan support because the banking calamities were not Democratic or Republican issues. They impacted all Americans. Consequently, petty party disagreements took a back seat to governance for the greater good. Imagine that.

However, there is more to the story. On the evening of Sunday, March 12, 1933, only eight days into his presidency, FDR took to the radio to deliver the first of his “Fireside Chats” with the American people. In plain language for all to understand, FDR outlined why it was necessary to shut the banks down in order to rehabilitate them with an eye toward reopening them in a manner that would allow them to meet every customer’s need. Roosevelt also detailed the way in which the banks would phase in their reopening. Essentially, there was a phasing-in process that was somewhat similar in approach to the current phases we see with respect to COVID reopening (i.e., reasonable metrics to assess readiness).

More importantly, Roosevelt was able to communicate a sense of compassion for the plight of the common man, while also laying out his plan in a candid and honest fashion. He was, thereby, able to obtain buy in from the American people, who immediately began removing their money from their mattresses and, once again, depositing it in the banks.

I do not offer the Bank Holiday to in any way deify FDR, or to suggest a thorough understanding of the banking system. Rather, I offer it as an example to illuminate the fact that it sometimes takes leadership to point us in the direction where we listen to the better angels of our nature and own the responsibility of being our brother’s keeper.

In less than 14 minutes, during that first fireside chat, FDR appealed to the American people and reached them in a way that tapped a sense of unity that our country needs not only during times of war, famine or crisis, but one that must become prevalent if we ever hope to realize our true potential. Roosevelt captured the essence of oneness in the closing remarks of that first radio address, when he noted as follows:

“After all there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than it
is mine. Together we cannot fail.”

This is the most strenuous test of our collective mettle during my lifetime. As FDR stressed, it is up to each of us to make it work. That said, please continue to be safe. We’re all depending upon it.

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