“I had a professor say he hasn’t felt this level of confusion and anxiety nationwide since 9/11, would you say that’s accurate?”
My son posed that question to me yesterday. He may have assumed that I already had given the comparison some thought; after all, the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are perhaps the most significant unexpected event in American life since Pearl Harbor. We’ve also experienced the Great Recession in recent times, but fortunately that significant and unexpected event had virtually no impact on my son, who was a little boy on that fall day when the planes hit the Twin Towers. He probably doesn’t have a very vivid memory of 9/11, but I’m sure that like the rest of us he has a strong emotional memory of what happened.
We were separated by a continent that morning, he at home with his mother and sister near the Pacific and I at a work conference on the shore of the Atlantic. This was your typical businessman get together, with too many drinks served to glad-handing men in khaki and women in navy blue the evening before, and red-eyed smiles (and more khaki and navy) in the pastry line the next morning. We took our danishes and coffees and found seats in the main room, where we pretended not to be nursing hangovers while we waited for the first speaker to kick off the conference.
Eventually he took his place at the lectern and began droning on about something that was supposed to be fascinating until just a little before 9:00 a.m., when another individual rushed to the front of the room, whispered something in our speaker’s ear, and hurried away. “We’re going to take a little break. We just got word that an airplane hit the World Trade Center. We’ll get more information for you and then we’ll reconvene,” he said. This seemed like an overreaction. Sure, it was terrible to think that some old fart in his Cessna made a grievous error and slammed into one of the towers, but why inconvenience us?
This conference was held at a golf resort. Someone asked where the nearest television was, and those of us who were interested followed an employee to the clubhouse bar. TVs hung from the ceiling on either end of the long rectangle of a room. We watched the tower burn while the newscaster speculated about anything that would fill the dead air: the type of plane, what went wrong, how much damage may have been done to the building, on and on. We did the same from our bar stools. Some of us called on their Air Force experience, others invoked the ghosts of John Denver and John F. Kennedy, Jr., two recent high-profile victims of pilot error. Now and then someone complained about the disruption: “We’re hundreds of miles from there. What the hell are we supposed to do?”
And then a second plane hit the second tower, live in glorious NBC peacock color. This was the moment that changed everything, at least for the khaki and navy convention goers gathered in the clubhouse bar. That second plane made it clear that this was no accident. “We just went to war,” I said. The words hung there for a moment in the still air, unchallenged. We watched silently for a few minutes, and then the room erupted into fear, anger, theories, and Pearl Harbor comparisons. The one feeling we all shared remained unspoken: We wanted to go home.
Home meant different things to different people. Some had a short drive, others a longer one. Most of us had flights: Indiana, California, Arizona, New York. Convention goers scrambled to reach corporate travel reps but cellular networks were overloaded. By the time these desperate travelers got through, flights throughout the U.S. had already been grounded.
All I wanted was to be with my family. Every petty problem, complaint, and disagreement fell away. I just wanted to be home, but a week passed before I was allowed to get on a plane. There were maybe 20 passengers including me, all adults, all still pretty raw. We did our best to look non-threatening, not to the crew but to each other. Each one of us sent out signals that we were safe, that everything was okay. Men shot each other reassuring glances: If something goes down, I’ve got your back. Yeah, same here buddy. Most of it was Barney Fife bravado, but the theater of courage was necessary in the absence of actual bravery.
The weeks after September 11 were unlike any other time in the United States during my lifetime. Those who remembered Pearl Harbor likened the feeling to that event, but I had never experienced anything like it. My earliest memories of the grown-up world were Nixon and the tail end of Vietnam. My teen years passed entirely during the Reagan ’80s, and most of my twenties passed while Congress feuded with Clinton. I had never lived in a United States that wasn’t defined by “us and them,” but suddenly there was only “us.” It was as if Americans wanted to prove not only to the world but to ourselves that we weren’t afraid, or that at that very least we weren’t the awful people that evildoers, as our president called them, thought we were. All people–Democrats, Republicans, Independents, prop comedians–took pride in flying their flags, going about their daily business, whatever. That Halloween more families roamed my neighborhood than before or since, parents teaching by example that there was no need to be afraid. We may not have welcomed the challenge with which we were confronted, but we weren’t going to shrink from it.
That feeling didn’t last. Opportunists exploited our rediscovered solidarity for political gain and personal benefit, and in the process they sowed seeds whose fruit we now fight over in the grocery aisles. Don’t get me wrong: selfishness, greed, and opportunism reared their heads during the weeks following 9/11, allegedly even at Ground Zero. But overall the response to the events of that September morning was to come together as a nation, to demonstrate the true courage of action in the face of fear. For a brief moment we were filled with the spirit of Dunkirk, even if in reality very few of us were ever in any real danger.
I can’t say the same for the coronavirus scare. What differentiates COVID-19 from 9/11 is our collective response to a perceived threat. We aren’t sharing glances that express “I’ve got your back,” but rather overtly letting everybody know that the only backs we have are our immediate families’ and our own. We’re clearing grocery shelves of everything but cocktail onions, and given enough time I’m sure those will go, too. We’re hoarding, stockpiling, behaving like selfish cowards. Some of us refuse to heed medical advice from experts because “fake news” and “Democrat conspiracy.” Rather than coming together to face a challenge, we’ve chosen to fragment even more. My answer to my son’s question: Our collective response to the coronavirus is the exact opposite of our response to Al-Qaeda’s attack.
It doesn’t help that our government is fueling that sort of selfish panic with its response to this national challenge, but that’s beside the point. The United States isn’t its government, but rather its people. The answer is right there on the money in your pocket: E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one.
If you’re old enough to remember the weeks after 9/11, take a couple of minutes and try to really recall how you felt toward your friends, neighbors, even strangers. Put yourself in that frame of mind before you battle over the last bottle of hand sanitizer or sprint away with an 8-pack of Charmin. There’s no reason to be afraid. The only bad guys in our current scenario are ourselves, and only then when we stop behaving like reasonable people. The news isn’t out to get you, nor are the people in the blue hats or the red hats.
COVID-19 is just a virus, one of literally millions floating around looking for hosts. If you’re going to be terrified of all of them you’re not going to have time for much of anything else. Not even throwing on a pair of khaki pants and attending a boring work conference.