Back in 2017, I toured Japan, and was struck by a strange sight on Tokyo streets: about half the people were wearing face masks, even though there was no pandemic or other immediate public health problem.

Shoppers at Tokyo Fish Market in 2017.

Hotel and tour people gave several reasons for all the mask wearing: sometimes women didn’t feel like putting on makeup before heading off to work, so they put on a mask instead; some people felt rundown and wanted to minimize their chances of catching colds from others; but most often, people wore masks to avoid possibly passing on unknown viruses and bacteria to others… other words, out of concern for their fellow citizens. So at a place like the Tokyo Fish Market, where the accompanying photo was taken, the majority of Japanese out shopping for food wore masks, like those in this photo.

Japanese culture emphasizes consideration and concern for the community at large. Japanese children tend to be quiet and well behaved in public, people don’t gab and talk during movies at a theater.

I’m not trying to start another argument about the benefits of face masks. It’s gotten awfully tiring.

What’s amazing to me is how differently from other countries Americans are reacting to the need for face masks, along with other relatively small steps of prevention, like social distancing and avoiding parties and bar scenes. In other words, abiding by long established public health protocols that amount to consideration and concern for the community at large so as to deter spread of the pandemic.

Those Americans who rebel against such steps mostly argue, to effect: The pandemic isn’t nearly as serious as it’s made out to be and, besides, masks don’t help prevent getting or communicating the virus.

The biggest problem with the denial is that people can see for themselves that it’s not true. Many now have friends or neighbors who have gotten sick, very sick, with Covid-19. They can see that the U.S. has never organized a testing protocol that allows for serious tracking that could slow down or stop the pandemic.  And they can see how most other developed countries have gotten their arms around this thing much more effectively than we have. This comparative analysis from a public health professional says a lot:

“To understand just how bad things are in the United States and, more important, what can be done about it requires comparison. At this writing, Italy, once the poster child of coronavirus devastation and with a population twice that of Texas, has recently averaged about 200 new cases a day when Texas has had over 9,000. Germany, with a population four times that of Florida, has had fewer than 400 new cases a day. On Sunday, Florida reported over 15,300, the highest single-day total of any state…”

“Italy, Germany and dozens of other countries have reopened almost entirely, and they had every reason to do so. They all took the virus seriously and acted decisively, and they continue to: Australia just issued fines totaling $18,000 because too many people attended a birthday party in someone’s home….”

So while much of the rest of the world reopens its businesses and schools, Americans continue to argue about the supposed tyranny of masks and the subtleties of the data about Covid-19 illnesses and testing. It’s mostly argued on the basis of rights and feared tyranny. In the meantime, many schools will remain shut this fall, and many restaurants and other small businesses, will fail. Americans aren’t allowed into most of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, or Canada.

In the meantime, the real tyrannical action is going on in Portland, Oregon. There, American paramilitary troops in unmarked uniforms (never thought I’d be describing American law enforcement of any kind that way) are out forcing demonstrators into unmarked vans. Right now, those arrested are being released, but such tactics, no matter what the country, inevitably lead to much worse–things like disappearances, torture, and murder.

Most troublesome to me is the fact that those getting hysterical about how masks interfere with their rights are mostly silent as American paramilitary troops round up individuals in Portland exercising their First Amendment rights of assembly and free speech. Instead, we go at each even more intensively, which seems to be the real intention of the exercise.

I sure hope we avoid the trap of fighting each other ever more aggressively. We did that once before, in the 1860s, and hundreds of thousands were slaughtered before we came back together.  It’s the path we’ve been heading down for far too long, and it is not only getting discouraging, but it is threatening our democratic institutions and traditions. I can tell you that living in a country where the streets are patrolled by secret paramilitary troops with the authority to pull anyone into an unmarked vehicle at will is not the way you want to live. Because while you may right now be on the right side of the powers ordering the troops into play, at some point you won’t be….but at that point, it will be too late to do much about it.