On April 7, news agencies reported that New York City’s death toll from COVID-19 surpassed that of the September 11, 2001, attacks. I imagine the comparison was made in an attempt to highlight the gravity of the pandemic and, in a way, to encourage Americans to take seriously social distancing measures. Some of it, too, no doubt was sensational: an eye-catching headline that the talking heads at major news networks like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News could run with.
But we should be wary of gauging the catastrophe in units of “9/11,” especially when we plan for our post-pandemic future. For one, it stands as an inappropriate and imprecise measurement of the attendant pain, grief and sorrow of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the tendency to measure distance in “football fields,” it’s an odd habit of Americans to quantify global tragedies in terms of 9/11s. Reporters did it with the London 7/7 bombings and India’s 2008 bombings, and the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams did it with the COVID-19 pandemic this past April 5. In some ways, it was only a matter of time before the specter of 9/11 appeared in conversations surrounding COVID-19.
Responding in The Guardian to claims that the 2008 Mumbai bombing was “India’s 9/11,” novelist Arundhati Roy warned readers to be wary of such comparisons: “November isn’t September, 2008 isn’t 2001, Pakistan isn’t Afghanistan and India isn’t America.” As Roy points out, the 9/11 comparison rarely achieves its intended aims.
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So, what does it mean, then, to measure horror around the globe in terms of 9/11? Let’s take another atrocity and measure it against 9/11 for effect. In the short span of 100 days in 1994, ethnic Hutu extremists slaughtered around 800,000 Tutsis in the east African nation of Rwanda. During those months, the tiny country suffered the equivalent of two and two-thirds of a 9/11 every day, for 100 days as Samantha Power reported in Dissent. Indeed, the calamity is almost incomprehensible: For a country of 6.26 million people in 1993, the massacre meant that Rwanda lost 12.7 percent of its population. (A United States equivalent today would be if 41.85 million dropped dead.) In other words, one tragedy hardly substitutes for another.
Yet the knee-jerk reaction remains: 9/11 should stand in for any and all tragedies, no matter how poorly the comparison fits. Perhaps this is because the United States has never had an invading army arrive on its shores with the threat of total destruction. In fact, settler “Americans” were those invading armies whose fateful arrival in 1492 visited genocide and destruction upon a multitude of Indigenous nations. Like the use of 9/11 as a measurement, the relegation of this reality to the dustbins of history is taught to Americans in the classroom, from the pulpit, on our television screens and on the pages of our books.
Leaving aside for now the George W. Bush administration’s propaganda campaign to frame Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for 9/11, it’s important to point out here that our memory is an ongoing process that we engage collectively. While many tend to believe that our memories record history like a camcorder — capturing reality with flawless fidelity and granularity — memory is “more like [a] collage.” We often remember those most shocking, grotesque and emotional fragments of our experiences and piece them together into a story that mixes fact with fiction. All of this, of course, happens in the midst of our daily lives, our country’s politics and our culture’s teachings, which is to say that memory and its implications are political.
In his memoir, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah writes that “every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West.” Noah goes on to note how citizens the world over each think of “evil” in terms of their unique histories and cultures, a tendency that politicians exploit for their own machinations. Bush, for example, in his 2002 State of the Union Address, conjured up a new “face of terror”: the so-called Axis of Evil that was Iran, Iraq and North Korea. (None of which had anything to do with 9/11.) Around the world, “evil” — that “perpetual enemy who must always be fought but can never be vanquished” — dons a million-and-one faces to hide behind.
But the 9/11 comparisons raise another worrying possibility: that our response to COVID-19 will mirror our response to 9/11. After the twin towers fell, our lawmakers, patriots, neighbors and pop culture content creators called on us to “never again” allow such an atrocity. “Never forget” we are admonished, in an uncomfortable appropriation of the language of Holocaust commemoration.
In building toward a new future, it seems the problem of memory necessarily includes the problem of forgetting. Consequently, we’re forced to reckon with the question of what will become of us after this pandemic, or as Solange Knowles puts it in her album A Seat at the Table: “Where do we go from here?” Novelist Roy is correct to say that “the pandemic is a portal,” one which forces a consideration of what baggage we’ll bring along with us as we cross the threshold “between one world and the next.”
Will we have a similar response to COVID-19 as to 9/11: a turn toward brutal retribution and global repression? In the aftermath of the attacks, the United States underwent what historian Mike Davis called an “exorcism in reverse.” Force-fed a steady diet of murderous vengeance, racism and Islamophobia, the Bush administration undertook a global “war on terror” — or what world-renowned dissident Noam Chomsky called “our unending war of terror” — in revenge for those 3,000 lives snuffed out. Answering to no one, the U.S. government kidnapped, tortured and murdered anyone it deemed a threat.
Frighteningly, there’s already an inkling of this future as Trump pushes to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border, as the U.S. accelerates airstrikes in Somalia, as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio enacts a “wartime” budget, and as police officers across the country flout social distancing measures and arrest volunteers offering aid to those most in need.
The moment is indeed ripe for author and journalist Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine.” Under the pretext of COVID-19, which has turbocharged unemployment and laid bare skyrocketing inequality, it will be much easier to push right-wing agendas of walling off the U.S. from Latin America and of ratcheting up surveillance of dissidents. In a country with more than twice as many prison cells as hospital beds, a country awash in drones and nuclear warheads amid a desperate shortage of ventilators, heightened repression and incarceration are almost to be expected. This is to say nothing of many of our politicians who, despite syrupy pronouncements, are already leaning toward complacency following this wave of panic, as Ed Yong writes in The Atlantic: refusing to enact preventative measures to stave off the spread of COVID-19 or to stop a slow degradation of civil liberties.
Perhaps, however, the pandemic will turn those 9/11 comparisons and other war metaphors on their head, suggesting we “never forget” in a different way. Since COVID-19 has already taught us a new vocabulary — N95, PPE, nonessential, social distancing, contact tracing, etc. — demanding a “novel” response to the “novel coronavirus” feels necessary and required.
Optimistic in the midst of numerous, laudable mutual aid campaigns, I wonder if there may be a groundswell to demand that our politicians and political elites “never again” even consider standing against Medicare for All or defunding the health care programs, public hospitals and subsidized clinics that serve our communities. Never again cut welfare or erect needless barriers to accessing those same and other social programs, which 30 million Americans have filed for. Never again let military spending supersede spending on education, public health, justice initiatives or public housing. Never again allow political power to pool upwards, which is intensifying the pain we’re feeling now.