Eventually, all discussions about sterilizing immunity [Ability to totally prevent infection] become nerdy quibbles over semantics. Clearly, not every infection is clinically meaningful, or even logistically detectable, given the limits of our technology—nor do they need to be, if there’s no sickness or transmission. (A koan for pandemic times: If a microbe silently and inconsequentially copies itself in a tissue, and the body doesn’t notice, did it actually infect?) There is, for every pathogen, a threshold at which an infection becomes problematic; all the immune system has to do is suppress its rise below this line to keep someone safe.
But that might be exactly the point. Say that sterilizing immunity is impossible, that our immune systems cannot, in fact, be trained to achieve perfection. Then it’s neither a surprise nor a shortcoming that COVID-19 vaccines, or other vaccines, don’t manage it: An inoculation that guards marvelously well against disease—offering as much protection as it can—can still end an outbreak. Life would certainly be easier if vaccines offered invincible armor, with pathogens simply ricocheting off. But they don’t, and assuming or expecting them to manage that can be dangerous. The dubiousness of sterilizing immunity is a reminder that just about any immune response can be overwhelmed, if exposures are heavy and frequent enough, Grad told me. The best we can all hope for is functional immunity, more like a flame retardant than a firewall, that still keeps bad burns at bay.
Yesterday the state of Virginia permanently removed the nation’s largest confederate monument, a statue of Robert E. Lee, from its place on Monument Avenue in the capital city of Richmond, Virginia, where it had been erected in 1890. All other confederate monuments have already been removed. This was the last one to go. Lee was the famed confederate general who led a southern army of rebellion against the United States government during the American Civil War.
It was the right decision and long overdue. The historical truth is that Robert E. Lee and the confederate army fought a long and bloody war against the federal government of the United States over the legal right of the southern states to preserve and expand the institution of chattel slavery.
I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. [underlining added]
He liked to say that he was in morals, not politics. From this the logical deduction was that people who opposed him, numerous though they undoubtedly were, must be willfully wrong. . . .
Yet angry words were about the only kind anyone cared about to use these days. Men seemed tired of the reasoning process. Instead of trying to convert one’s opponents it was simpler just to denounce them, no matter what unmeasured denunciation might lead to. . . . Men saw what they feared and hated, concentrated on its wide empty plains, and as they stared they were losing the ability to see virtue in compromise and conciliation. The man on the other side, whatever one’s vantage point, was beginning to look ominously alien. . . .
A philippic, as he had promised. No single vote had been changed by it; the Senate would decide, at last, precisely as it would have done if he had kept quiet. But he had not been trying to persuade. No one was, these days; a political leader addressed his own following, not the opposition. Summer had been trying to inflame, to arouse, to confirm the hatreds and angers that already existed. In the North there were men who from his words would draw a new enmity toward the South; in the South there were men who would see in this speaker and what he had said a final embodiment of the compelling reasons why it was good to think seriously about secession.
These excerpts are from Catton’s book, This Hallowed Ground. Though he is describing something that happened 165 years ago, it feels eerily contemporary.
In the opening pages of his book, a section aptly subtitled “Sowing the Wind,” Catton is describing the mood of the U.S. Senate (and the nation really) as Senator Charles Sumner prepared and delivered a speech on the Senate floor denouncing slavery and calling for the territory of Kansas to be admitted to the Union as a free state.
A few days later, on the Senate floor, as a result of that speech, Sumner was attacked and almost beat to death with a cane by Preston Brooks, a senator from South Carolina, and a strong advocate for slavery and states’ rights.
It was May, 1856. The nation was just 5 years from the opening shots of a bloody civil war.
All I had known about Senator John Warner I’d heard from my mom and dad before I came to Capitol Hill to work. I knew the Senator had been a Secretary of the Navy. I knew he’d been married to Elizabeth Taylor. I also knew my parents had a very high regard for him as our Senator from Virginia and, of course, because he was a Republican….back when, I think it’s fair to add, being Republican was something somewhat different than it is today.
All of these things went through my mind when the Senator approached me one evening in the Senate subway of the U.S. Capitol Building. This would have been around 1994, and it was my first personal encounter with Senator Warner. I was standing watch (it was my job as a U.S. Capitol Police Officer) over the senator and a small crowd of visitors on the Senate subway platform. They were waiting for a subway car. There was a reserved subway car for senators and an area marked specifically for senators to stand while waiting for the subway car. But on this day the crowd apparently didn’t see the sign and stood in the area reserved for senators waiting to board.
I started to walk over to kindly ask the visitors to move to the visitor boarding area, but before I could say something Senator Warner began speaking to the crowd. They were, as the senator happily discovered, Virginians. As the senator spoke to them he observed me off to the side waiting for him to finish. He gave me a hand motion and a nod that signaled “I got this.” The crowd was excited. They hadn’t expected to see their senator in person during their visit to the Capitol. The crowd laughed and asked questions and then took pictures with the Senator. The subway car pulled in just as the pictures were done and the Senator guided the crowd onto the reserved car. He didn’t get on, however. He said something that made the crowd laugh and then waved as the doors to the car closed and the car pulled away.
That left just the Senator and I standing there on the platform. The Senator turned and with his hands grasped behind his back, and a look of interest on his face, walked over to me and asked where I was from. I told him I was a Virginian and that my wife and I had recently purchased a home in Centreville, VA. The senator smiled and said: “Nice area. I own a farm not too far from you called Atoka Farm. Beautiful country out there.” I agreed with him about the beauty of that area and added jokingly, “If we get out that way again maybe we’ll stop in and see you.” The senator smiled and said, “Well I don’t get out to the farm as much as I use to, but if you do get out that way again please do stop in and take a look at the farm. Check on it for me. If anyone asks you tell them I sent you.” About that time the next subway car arrived and he left.
And so sometime over the next few months my wife and I made our way west again to explore more of Fauquier County, Virginia. We first pulled into what we thought was Atoka Farm. A lot of the farms in that area of Virginia are massive; they’re hundreds, in some cases thousands, of acres in size. And they don’t look like what most of us would think of when we think of a farm either. It’s more accurate to describe them as “estates.” Atoka Farm, as I recall, was about 400 acres in size at the time.
As my wife and I drove down the main entry road we were suddenly startled by a low flying plane on our immediate right. He was on final approach to a runway. I knew the Senator was a wealthy man, but the idea of him having a runway and airplane didn’t register. I stopped the car looked around. We were near a set of smaller homes on the estate and I happened to notice a small sign. We were on the wrong farm. We had pulled into Paul Mellon’s massive estate, Oak Spring Farm.
So eventually we found Atoka Farm and we drove around the grounds and took some pictures. The gardens and the scenery were beautiful. The barn, we found out, didn’t have farming equipment and other such stuff in it, but a swimming pool. One of the most noticeable features of this part of the country are all the low stones walls that crisscross the countryside. They’re everywhere and most estates are ringed by them and many of the roads are lined on both sides with them.
Months later, back on Capitol Hill, Senator Warner approached me near the Senate Chamber. I don’t recall the initial part of our conservation but I told him I’d visited his farm and I hoped he’d gotten out there to enjoy the beautiful countryside. “Oh I sold the farm” the Senator said. Surprised I said, “That was a beautiful place. What made you want to sell it?” The Senator paused for a moment and said, “Well, my daddy always told me you should never keep anything that eats while you sleep.”
Senator John Warner had an old world charm about him. He was a gentleman, an institutionalist, and a compromiser. He wanted to get things done and solve problems. He served this nation with integrity, honor, and decency.
John Warner died this past May 25th. He was 94.