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The Failure to Mourn Our Pandemic Dead

9/11 always reminds us which victims matter most in America

Just a few weeks into the U.S. outbreak of coronavirus, I wrote a column that cautioned against what I felt were somewhat glib comparisons to 9/11. It was at the end of March, you’ll recall, that headlines alerted us to the first of many grim statistics: COVID-19 had killed more than 3,000 Americans, a death toll in excess of the 2001 terror attacks that brought down the Twin Towers.

Months later, I’m staring at an estimate of approximately 191,000 deaths. In California, where I live, we confirmed 3,000 new cases just yesterday, and some of those will eventually move to the casualty column. One reason we have struggled to properly grieve these losses, apart from the restrictions a pandemic places on funerary services, is the indefinite span of the crisis. It isn’t over, and we don’t know if or when it ever will be. Conversely, the events of 9/11 unfolded in a few short, stunning hours, now fixed in the amber of memory as the synonym of that once unmeaningful date. It was not only the visual bloom but the horrific speed of al-Qaeda’s mass murder that crystallized it as a blow to the national psyche. It ended almost before it began.

Maybe this helps to explain why those who flirt with COVID trutherism — downplaying the danger of the virus, claiming the numbers are inflated, writing off thousands of dead as invalids close to expiring anyway — are nonetheless so militant about the memorial customs for the nearly 3,000 who perished on 9/11. (For the record, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced shortly after reports of its cancelation that New York City’s “Tribute in Light” would go on as usual.)

Almost 20 years after 9/11, it seems fruitless to observe yet again that right-wingers have an openly fetishistic relationship with that moment in history, which gave us a generation of seething Islamophobia, forever wars in the Middle East and a surveillance police state at home. It would be equally tiresome to complain of their trademark hypocrisy — that while it’s “Never Forget” for the victims of 9/11, it’s “This Isn’t Happening” for anyone currently suffering the consequences of our botched response to a contagious pathogen, and “Oh Well” for everybody it’s already killed, as well as their friends and loved ones.

But to sum this all up anyway: It’s never been so plain that to the conservative mind, some deaths leave an important wound, and others are only statistics. If your demise does not serve the mythos, it has to be suppressed.

In Osama Bin Laden and his jihadist network, we had an enemy responsible for a singular assault on American soil. Whether the U.S. government failed to anticipate the threat (remember that Donald Trump has criticized George W. Bush on that pretext) was tangential to the opportunity for swift and brutal revenge. With the crisis of COVID-19, there is no one to blame but ourselves, and therefore, no incentive for the right to acknowledge the deceased. Rather perversely, one could imagine a scenario in which Trump and his surrogates had more success in painting China as the villain of this story, and a foreign power with the blood of our fair citizens, but that would have required both a commitment to war and disclosing the actual risks of infection, neither of which was in the offing.

And while 9/11 ceremonies are staged for all the fallen, there is a special emphasis on the police and firefighters who died in the line of duty that day; in 2020, doctors and nurses on the front lines of the pandemic are denounced as complicit in a hoax or worse. Without a cast of heroes to revere for their ultimate sacrifice — that is, absent the narrative logic of warriorhood and visceral hazard — there can be no crying bald eagles or flag-waving “resilience.” An invisible germ is not a burning, collapsing skyscraper.

Nobody in this country, least of all the self-styled patriot, would tolerate a diminishing of what happened on 9/11, or the human agony it entailed. The anniversary rituals are calibrated against exactly that. Neither would we listen to someone who argues that most of the victims belonged to a “high-risk” group because they worked in a particularly tall building, or that 3,000 deaths is less than a tenth of our annual car accident fatalities.

The very act of contrast is taboo, since there is a lone accepted context for 9/11, and that is 9/11. Coronavirus, meanwhile, started out as an ambient circumstance, the illness spreading to individuals through space and time, some of them added to a mounting figure as they succumb to their symptoms, that tally then further abstracted and rationalized to appease an audience that has no use for the raw information.

As we mark 19 years since our collective fantasy was shattered in a way that could not be ignored, we should also think forward. In the future, we will need to remember the people whose painful departure from this world amounted to a colossal trauma that many did not see as real. Any memorial must include this discordance — a confession of the popular effort to twist, censor and silence the gravest of truths. A pronouncement that it is and was political defiance to say: I mourn a parent, a partner, a sibling, a child, a friend, and they were killed by a system that didn’t care, that destroyed our bodies to save itself.

At root, the refusal to meet this disaster on its own terms is an unwillingness to fix the injustices that made it worse. If we owe anything to our pandemic dead, it is to challenge American decay with a movement that bears their names.