9/11, COVID, and Us

We are a worse people.

1. The Worst Anniversary

It may seem crazy, but 19 years from now there will be a big chunk of America for which this pandemic is a blurry artifact of history. That is how the world works.

We are as far away from 9/11 today as we were on September 11, 2001 from 1982.

Think about that for a minute. In 1982 there were no cell phones and no internet. America was just beginning to escape the gravitational pull of the 1970s. The Cold War was reaching its apex and was the single most important issue for the country. We worried about nuclear exchanges with the Soviet Union while filling our cars with leaded gasoline.

Think about how you felt on 9/11. And then think about how far away those early years of the Reagan administration felt to you at the time.

Because that’s how anyone under the age of 30 thinks about 9/11 today.

And 19 years from now, it’s how anyone under the age of 30 will think about COVID.

I’m not sure if that’s hopeful, or depressing. Probably a bit of both.


On March 30, the COVID death toll in America eclipsed the toll of 9/11. Here is what I wrote:

When all is said and done, the novel coronavirus will be the equivalent of multiple 9/11’s. Maybe two of them. Maybe five. Maybe thirty.

We’ll see. God help us, we’re going to see.

People on the internet made fun of me for being alarmist, because “only” 2,977 Americans had died from the virus. Turns out I wasn’t being dark enough.

We are closing in on the equivalent of 67 September 11’s.

Please think about that for a moment. Think about how you felt on that day, which was the greatest intelligence failure in American history. And imagine angry you would have been if 66 more of them had followed.

Imagine what sort of accountability you would have demanded for the people in charge.


2. This Is Us

When we talk about accountability, we’re talking about our president, Donald Trump. That’s proper. He is the man who made the government’s decisions on how to handle the pandemic. The death toll belongs to him.

In a few weeks, the American people will pass judgment on him for his words and actions.

But as always, it’s easy to mistake the symptom for the disease.

Think about the difference between the mood in this country following 9/11 and now.

After 9/11, America rallied together under a single banner. Republicans and Democrats linked arms. George W. Bush’s approval rating was in the 90s. Both left and right moved out of their comfort zones: Liberals became more hawkish; conservatives began paying attention to the idea of multiculturalism. These shifts weren’t permanent, but they showed that both sides saw their blind spots and knew they had to correct for them.

The left knew that its general dovishness would get in the way of what would need to be an aggressive military response.

The right knew that in order to prevent an backlash against Muslims, it needed to plant a flag declaring that Islam itself was not the problem.

And these moves—call them gestures, if you’re cynical—were born of the realization that what had happened to America was important. That 9/11 mattered. And that a serious country takes serious events seriously.

I don’t think we need to enumerate how different things are today.


Who’s to blame?

Garrett Graff has a good piece in the Atlantic about how our nation’s capacity for grief today is different than it was 19 years ago and he mostly blames the pandemic itself and the ways in which it has warped our rituals:

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated grief have created a different sensory experience for the country. Despite the hours of dedicated cable-news coverage, the pandemic is difficult to capture on TV. Graphics and colorful charts hardly do justice to the illness, death, and suffering that have played out mostly behind closed doors in nursing homes and hospitals. Rare photos of corpses in tractor trailers have been snapped covertly by medical professionals fearful of being fired. Past crises were literally easier to picture: the fallen sharpshooter on the field of Gettysburg, the child victim cradled by a firefighter in Oklahoma City, the falling man of 9/11.

At the same time, Americans have been physically unable to mourn this tragedy together. Many families who lost loved ones this year could not stand graveside at their burial; the loss of a friend or family member occurred over FaceTime; memorial services occurred over Zoom. The events of 9/11 sparked any number of community candlelight vigils. This pandemic has brought forth tears but inhibited hugs.

I’m sure that’s part of it.

Then there’s Donald Trump. He is not just to blame for the government’s response to the coronavirus, but for trying to incite half the country into believing that the coronavirus is a hoax and that the Americans taking the virus seriously are the enemy.

This is not an exaggeration. Have a look at this interview with one of Trump’s supporters at his Thursday rally in Michigan. It’s 47 seconds and you really need to see the facial expressions and vocal and physical cues. But I’ll give you the transcript in case you’re pressed for time:

CNN: Why are you not wearing your mask?

Trump supporter: Because there's no COVID. It's a fake pandemic. Created to destroy the United States of America.

CNN: But the president said to Bob Woodward that there is a virus and that it is deadly.

Trump supporter: That’s his opinion. The truth is that the CDC says that only less than 10,000 people died from COVID. The other 190,000 have 2.6 or 2.8 other mordalities. [sic]

This is a minority opinion, however the size of the minority is not insignificant.

But I don’t blame Trump for all of the division. Because his people—like the guy in that video—aren’t NPC’s. They have minds of their own. They chose to follow his lead.

In the same way that some large percentage of Americans wanted Donald Trump, there’s a large percentage who wanted not to rally around each other, but to turn on each other. To retreat into fantasy land. To choose to be unserious.

The worst thing about this anniversary is that, for the first time in 19 years, we have been confronted with incontrovertible evidence that we are a different people than we were on 9/11.

A much—much—worse people.


3. The 9/11 Fights We Did Have

This piece about 9/11 will forever by my favorite essay written by Leon Wieseltier, which is one of the most bracing bits of moral dressing-down you will ever see:

Is it a little laughter that we need now? Then behold the contrition of yesterday’s frivolous, the new fashion in gravity. The man who edits Vanity Fair has ruled that the age of cynicism is over. He would know. I always wondered what it would take to put a cramp in the trashy mind, and at last I have my answer: a mass grave in lower Manhattan. So now depth has buzz. The papers are filled with hip people seeing through hipness, composing elegiac farewells to the days of Gary Condit and Jennifer Lopez. The on dit has moved beyond the apple martini. It has discovered evil and the problem of its meaning. No doubt about it, seriousness is in. So it is worth remembering that there are large swathes of American society in which seriousness was never out. Not everybody has lived as if the media is all there is. Not everybody has been consecrated only to cash and cultural signifiers. Not everybody has been a pawn of irony. Everybody was shocked by the attack, but not everybody was philosophically unprepared for it. For a thoughtful life is not premised on an experience of catastrophe, except for the exceedingly thoughtless. There are states of happiness that are not states of stupidity. We should not have to choose between being imbeciles and being mourners.

But mourners can be imbeciles, too. “[M]any of those people who died this past week,” Billy Graham instructed the prayer service at the National Cathedral on September 14, “are in heaven right now, and they wouldn’t want to come back. It’s so glorious and so wonderful.” This was Mohamed Atta’s eschatology, too. It is not consoling, it is insulting. We are not a country of children. Nothing that transpired on September 11 was wonderful, nothing. The only effect of these fantasies is to loosen the American grip on reality at precisely the moment that it needs to be tightened. If it makes sense to call on religion in times of trouble, it is not because religion abolishes spiritual pain, but because religion acknowledges spiritual pain. When all the political and military and economic and psychological and cultural analyses of the slaughter are exhausted, there remains the question of the justice of the world. Whether or not it has a religious answer, this is a religious question. About this question it is not easy to be brilliant. Silence is often a surer sign of mental progress than is articulateness.  . . .

Also, in the search for strength, beware fine writing. It, too, is cheap balm. In the New Yorker last week, writer after writer elected to meet atrocity with sensibility. “On the morning of the day they did it,” Adam Gopnik began, “the city was as beautiful as it had ever been. Central Park had never seemed so gleaming and luxuriant...” and so on: the old bathos to protect against the new knowledge. Gopnik has a skill for shrinking everything in the universe to the scale of a bourgeois amenity, but he surpassed himself with the observation that the odor of the destruction was “almost like the smell of smoked mozzarella.” On September 11, knowingness! I was not in Manhattan when it was attacked, but I am certain that Gopnik’s observation is a lie. It is also the remark of a hick, the expression of a desperate provincialism. In the provinces, at least, they struggle against their confinements.

Read the whole thing if for no other reason than to see Wieseltier undress Updike "as a man who has words for everything and nothing but words." And remember that this was the reaction to 9/11 from the New Republic.

As I said, we were a better people.