WASHINGTON -- For months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the nation ached together in televised memorials, joining in a collective catharsis of uniformed salutes, bagpiped dirges and President George W. Bush declaring a national day of mourning and remembrance.
The space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 turned classrooms into grieving sessions, with President Reagan directly addressing the national wounds. The Japanese attack on Hawaii's Pearl Harbor in 1941 was a day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would live in "infamy," uniting the mainland to enter a world war.
Yet as the nation nears 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 -- far more than all those tragic events combined or the entire Vietnam War -- there is little sense this Memorial Day weekend that Americans are grieving together or uniting in a sense of purpose.
While Americans have shared undeniable hardships since March -- including more than 38 million people forced to file for unemployment, and tens of millions more forced to hunker down at home to avoid the contagion -- the carnage is hitting them unevenly.
President Donald Trump, loath to dwell on those dismal figures, is both stoking the polarized response and counting on a fragmented experience to distract the nation from the almost incomprehensible death toll -- nearly triple that of any other country -- which could tar his presidency and jeopardize his chance for reelection in November.
"I don't think we're taking this in," said David Kessler, an author of six books on grief.
"It's easy to digest a statistic. It is not easy to digest 12 plane crashes a day," Kessler said. "Especially when there are no visuals. We aren't seeing 90,000 caskets. That kind of stuff would shock us. Maybe this is too big for us to comprehend."
In this hyper-partisan era, opposing camps have found a way to bicker over the dead as just another talking point, especially as Trump has cast criticism of his administration's response as driven purely by politics.
Still, the two sides reached a rare accord Thursday after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked Trump in a letter to lower U.S. flags to half-staff this weekend as a tribute to the dead. Trump tweeted hours later that he would do just that for three days "in memory of the Americans we have lost to the coronavirus."
During a visit to a Ford Motor Co. factory in Michigan earlier Thursday, Trump read from prepared remarks, saying "we hold in our hearts the precious memory of every person that we have lost, and we've lost too many" in a speech otherwise peppered with political boasts and gibes.