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Column: ‘You knew and now my boy is dead.’ Trump is as craven as the mayor in ‘Jaws’

"Jaws"
Murray Hamilton as the mayor of Amity Island, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss in “Jaws.”
(Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)

We are all Lee Fierro now.

Fierro, who died at 91 of complications from the coronavirus, was a drama teacher on Martha’s Vineyard when Steven Spielberg cast her as Mrs. Kintner, the mother of a boy who becomes the second shark attack victim in “Jaws.” When she learns that Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) knew about the first death and allowed the beaches to remain open anyway, she confronts him, throwing back her black veil and slapping Brody across the face.

“You knew it,” she says. “You knew there was a shark out there, you knew it was dangerous. You knew all those things but still my boy is dead now.

She should have, of course, been denouncing the mayor of Amity Island, who ignored proof of a deadly threat facing his constituency — just as we should be denouncing our president, who has done exactly the same thing.

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In the early days of the pandemic, when President Trump finally addressed the virus ravaging China and Europe with assurances that he had things under control, that COVID-19 would affect only a small percentage of Americans and likely just vanish one day as the weather got warmer, comparisons were made to “Jaws” and its sweaty mayor, who kept the beaches open.

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It was a bit funny, to be honest. Sniveling in every disaster film is some craven bureaucrat, intent on saving money on the skyscraper’s wiring or ignoring early signs that the Big One, wave or earthquake, is coming — and admitting his mistake to the grim hero only when it is too late.

But disaster movies tend to focus on the scrappy survivors; although occasionally one of the top-billed cast will succumb, the faceless thousands who perish are just that — faceless. Which is why Fierro’s turn as Mrs. Kintner remains one of the most powerful scenes in “Jaws.” She is there to remind the audience that each person who is lost leaves grief and desolation in his or her wake. And, more important, that this loss, grief and desolation must be laid at the feet of those officials who chose to ignore the facts, the experts and the obvious. Those mayors and safety inspectors and presidents who, because it was easier for them, chose to simply hope for the best.

We are all Mrs. Kintner now. As thousands die and millions lose their jobs; as hospitals become war zones and the mercifully uninfected huddle in their homes; as many wonder how they will get by with no paycheck — and the more fortunate but no less anxious pretend to appreciate having time to learn how to knit or whatever — a collective, roiling, righteous anger should be rising. And not just on Twitter.

You knew, Mr. President. You knew there was a shark out there, you knew it was dangerous, you knew we were not prepared — and now our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, friends and neighbors are dead. Hospitals lack basic supplies, millions are out of work, entire industries are teetering on destruction, our relationship with the international community is frayed all because you knew and did nothing.

Donald Trump’s White House reality show has received more attention, but Andrew Cuomo, Gavin Newsom and others offer a picture of getting things done.

Worse than nothing. Two years ago, the president dismantled this country’s global health security team. Last year, as The Times recently reported, his administration ended a pandemic early-warning program designed to train scientists to respond to a crisis just like COVID-19.

The president learned about the coronavirus threat just after New Year’s. By mid-January, U.S. intelligence reports were warning of a likely pandemic, which Trump ignored.

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Even when the virus reached the United States, the president downplayed not just its threat but its factual characteristics. It is not an infection to be brought easily under control, or to wither under a hot sun.

But in the immortal words of ABBA, I don’t want to talk about what we’ve been through. There is no point getting into the nauseating sideshow of presidential news conferences held since Trump was forced to admit that people were dying because people were dying.

Playing catch-up, the Trump administration has created a relief package, finally put manufacturers to work on supplying more ventilators and dispersed naval carriers to act as floating hospitals. But it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to need a bigger boat. Just as it’s obvious that an increasing number of Americans, like Mrs. Kintner’s boy, are not going to survive the increasingly horrific proof of what happens when you have a president who dismisses and openly defies scientific fact.

Wearing masks or other face coverings is now recommended as one way of slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

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As California and New York Govs. Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo realized early on, and as Jared Kushner recently made abundantly clear, states are to a large extent on their own in gearing up for this crisis. The head of the federal government may defy the recommendation to wear a face mask but he has been washing his hands of this pandemic from the beginning.

And so we will fight and die, isolate in health and illness, support our medical responders and pray they stay standing; we will wear our face masks and redistribute our wealth through various crisis funds. We will demand aid from the man we elected president but we won’t expect much because he, like the Amity mayor, is there simply to be forced into better-late-than-never pronouncements while the real heroes do the work.

But when it’s over — and it will be over, although no one knows when or how many sequels will be spawned — let’s all take a moment to honor Fierro, who in 1975 became the voice of a fictional town and in 2020, the voice of us all. Let us all flip back our black veils and speak the undeniable truth to the man who ignored science, his own advisors and common sense:

“You knew all those things but still our people, who were supposed to be your people, are dead.”


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