In the nearly two decades since 9/11, Americans have taken to using that horrific day as a benchmark for national catastrophe. This is a mistake in more ways than one. The terrorist attacks of September 11th, though they brought global consequences, had a highly localized impact — that is, few of us experienced their carnage directly. Drawing lazy comparisons to 9/11 also confuses the issues of body count, spectacle and ideological agenda: 19 jihadists killed 2,977 victims, a tally that may seem curiously low given the scale of the event, which we remember as a collage of monumental collapse, fiery explosions and smoldering rubble. These overpowering visuals, not the number of lives lost, were the true pretext for Middle East wars that have killed hundreds of times as many civilians — one million Iraqis died within five years of U.S. invasion.
So what did it really mean when a right-wing hack like Hugh Hewitt (who, incidentally, thought the Iraq War as perhaps “the wisest decision” George W. Bush made as president) tweeted, just three weeks ago, that the coronavirus pandemic was a bad situation but “not 2008 or 9/11”?
I’ll tell you what it means: jack shit. On the one hand, it tells you that Hewitt doesn’t care much for non-Americans (at that point, COVID-19 had already led to more fatalities worldwide than died in 9/11). On the other, it relates the paucity of his thinking: He’s already measuring the effect of an escalating disease outbreak versus a deep recession brought on by a housing bubble versus an unprecedented mass murder committed by religious extremists to destabilize Western empire. This is not a helpful juxtaposition!
That the novel coronavirus isn’t a human terrorist network feels ridiculous to point out, but here we are. Also, contrary to 9/11, its devastation is not something that translates into staggering, incendiary, replayed news footage — yet the threat is extra-insidious for being unseen and everywhere. Still, the faulty parallel is far too tempting, and now — with U.S. deaths from COVID-19 exceeding 3,400 — the media is fully on board for it:
There is some traffic calculus here; the “deadlier than 9/11” conceit is so clicky, we would have been shocked not to see it. Presumably, it ought to serve as a bleak corrective to the truthers, MAGA chuds and Hugh Hewitts of the country: “See? This is worse than the cataclysm you people always cite as the worst in living memory.” The singular trauma of 9/11, however, has unintended shades that aren’t invoked when, for example, someone refers to Puerto Rico’s ravaging by hurricane Maria as “Trump’s Katrina.”
What 9/11 brought about in the days after was a determination not to “let the terrorists win” — in other words, an exercise of all the rights and privileges that al-Qaeda supposedly hated. It was, in essence, the opposite of a quarantine: You were urged to take part in patriotic community, fly the flag and sing the gospel of American exceptionalism. We would persevere simply due to who we were, and our unwavering spirit.
That kind of symbolic faith is incredibly dangerous in a crisis that’s ongoing and indifferent to matters of cultural identity. You cannot beat a virus with sheer American obstinance. If you refuse to practice social distancing, you get sick. If you go on spring break despite warnings, you get sick. If you have friends over for a party or throw a wedding, if mourners gather for a funeral or shoppers crowd a farmers’ market or students return to college campus, people will inevitably get sick. Any public show of fearless contact is an opportunity for the illness to spread.
Not only is the instinct to “come together” and simp for American mythology a disastrous one right this moment, it continues the whitewashing of the period following 9/11, which actually saw a spike in hate crimes against Muslims and the stripping away of civil liberties. Anyone nostalgic for it is technically yearning for paranoia, surveillance and repression. But since the reality of the coronavirus isn’t beamed straight into the average citizen’s prefrontal cortex like the collapsing towers were, there isn’t much to galvanize a coast-to-coast demonstration of “these colors don’t run” resilience that some dimwits are anticipating.
For many COVID-19 denialists and downplayers, it’s easy to pretend that the outbreak, however diffuse, is happening elsewhere, away from them — which in turn leads to the risky behavior that exacerbates the problem. This is, in a curious twist, the opposite of what we saw in the wake of 9/11, when suburban and rural populations absurdly imagined themselves the next targets of al-Qaeda, having internalized that what happened on TV was happening to them. Today, they’re disturbingly cavalier as to a menace that’s already at their doorstep, having no fixed understanding of how it operates.
It remains to be seen whether the stars and stripes can diminish a plague with the efficacy of hand-washing, accessible testing, equipped hospitals and applied medical expertise. Personally, I’m not too optimistic. What we can say for sure is that responding to the virus like a finite, coordinated and warlike attack on our way of existence instead of a slow-churning, motiveless death machine helps nobody — unless you count the inept leaders with blood on their hands.