Just two weeks ago, after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Trump White House issued a warm statement that the liberal jurist had “demonstrated that one can disagree without being disagreeable toward one’s colleagues.” That spirit of humanity toward a political opponent is once again on display in Washington, a town too often prone to uncivil discourse.
Just hours after the president and first lady tested positive for COVID-19, many of Donald Trump’s fiercest opponents wished them a speedy recovery. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said he “will continue to pray for the health and safety of the president and his family.” Words of condolence also flowed from foreign leaders who have differed sharply with Mr. Trump’s policies, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Mr. Trump is not the first world leader to be diagnosed with the coronavirus. Britain’s Boris Johnson and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have defeated the virus, as we pray Mr. Trump will. In all three countries, the usual acrimony of mudslinging politics was silenced when the head of state became ill. It gave way to a principle long honored in both military battlefields and sometimes political ones: Anyone injured during a conflict deserves health care.
That principle has been around only about 150 years, starting with the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a nonprofit group that has challenged the old take-no-prisoners approach in warfare. The organization’s neutral workers have steadily persuaded combatants on all sides to allow medical treatment of the fallen. Once injured, a soldier is considered worthy of life-saving help.
Under humanitarian law enshrined in the 1949 Geneva Conventions, a person has inherent innocence. “The task is first and foremost to recognize the humanity in each one of us, as remote and different as we may be, and most importantly to refuse to remain a spectator when this humanity is denied or violated,” writes Vincent Bernard, an ICRC editor. In politics, too, a sickened opponent must be immune from the swords of hate.
The pandemic has upended many of the world’s conflicts. In Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban have allowed the Red Cross and other aid groups into areas it controls in order to help deal with the virus. Some observers say the Taliban’s acceptance of neutral care for civilians helped soften the group’s recent stance to start negotiations with the Afghan government.
A similar response might be in store for Washington. The many consoling words for the president as he struggles with COVID-19 serve as a reminder that enmity in politics should not translate to enmity toward a person. An idea may be unworthy of respect but not its proponent. In either sickness or in health, civility – even a loving word – can move politics in new directions.