9/11 and the Coronavirus: The Similarities and Differences

The tornadoes touched down in middle Tennessee early in the morning of March 3rd.  There was very little warning. Not that there weren’t any weather alerts or sirens. But even for those who heard the warnings there was not much time.  Some came within just minutes of serious injury and probable death. For others the margin to reach safety was mere seconds. Twenty-four men, women, and children did not make it to safety. 

For some in the tornado’s path a mile made all the difference between a home or business being left intact or being completely destroyed.  For some the distance difference was less than a football field. 

Whether we are under a tornado warning or a tornado watch, there is at least some measure of being alerted, and the opportunity given to flee or to prepare and brace for impact. 

There was nothing in the clear blue skies on the Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001 to warn of us of impending evil and tragedy. No text alerts or distant sirens to prepare us for the shock, panic, confusion, fear, and chaos that was just moments away. 

The Earthquake of 9/11 Versus the Hurricane of Covid-19

September 11th was more like a massive earthquake than a tornado or even a hurricane.  Earthquakes come with no warnings. On a sunny day, and when the one thing you assume that you can count on without even thinking about it—that at least the ground you’re standing on is stable—the earth’s rug is pulled out from under you. 

In contrast, we could see the Coronavirus coming but couldn’t seem to get out of its way. In some ways it feels like we were sitting on a beach and watching a huge tidal wave slowly forming off-shore and hoping maybe it would fizzle out or perhaps change direction so we wouldn’t have to move our beach chair and umbrella. At times this crisis has felt like being in one of those elaborate layouts of 100,000 dominoes. The first domino has been tipped and the wave of falling dominoes is heading your way but you can’t move.  

Unlike when under a hurricane warning, we could not evacuate. We cannot even evacuate now. Besides, where would we go?  We are currently being called to do the opposite of evacuate—stay in our homes. (I’m not disagreeing with that call, by the way. I’m just pointing out the irony.) This leads me to another major difference between 9/11 and Covid-19. 

Social Comfort Versus Social Distancing 

The virus is pressing us to do the very opposite of our nature and our need when in a tragedy or crisis. Instead of being able to gather in small groups and large groups, formal and informal, for support and encouragement, we are being forced to isolate in “social distancing.”  

The horror, grief, and uncertainty of 9/11 saw us gathering immediately and frequently for support. One of the insidious features of this virus is not just the physical effects and health scares but the social and relational consequences of it. 

In a time of needing each other and needing to be together, because of the very real danger of contagion, it is being requested of us and in many cases being required of us to isolate ourselves. This is unprecedented in our lifetime. But we’re in uncharted waters. 

The writer of Hebrews urged his readers not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together…”  I doubt he foresaw such a time as this when our “forsaken assembly” would be involuntary.  Even during times of persecution, the church has found ways to meet.  But a virus is an invisible enemy, making us vulnerable to unknowingly wounding or being wounded by someone we know and love.  This leads me to another difference.

Unity Versus Division

Early on, 9/11 had a unifying effect on the nation. You remember the feeling. There was a spirit of kinship. The sentiment was that the terrorism was not just an attack on New York and Washington, not just attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. No, we felt a solidarity with the victims and their families because it was America that was attacked and we were all Americans in that moment.  In that season our commonality as attacked Americans mattered more than our many differences. There was an uptick in unity and kindness everywhere. 

Unfortunately, as we recovered and rebuilt, as we went to war and entered election cycles, our unity faded.  Not even 20 years after 9/11, the waves of COVID-19 have hit our shores at one of the most divisive periods in our nation’s history. Which leads me to my final observation of the difference between 9/11 and the Coronavirus.

Trust Versus Suspicion 

Anne Applebaum wrote in The Atlantic that “epidemics have a way of revealing underlying truths about the societies they impact.”  Editor, William Falk, editor-in-chief of The Week replied with, “This one (epidemic) has caught us in a moment of profound weakness. Faith in science, government, media, and all our institutions has badly eroded, and we are deeply divided politically and culturally, viewing each other as enemy tribes, not countrymen.” 

I’ll always remember the photo of President Bush sitting in a classroom on the morning of September 11th when a White House aide interrupts and whispers something in the President’s ear. With my eyes closed I can still see that image and the look on Bush’s face as he’s receiving the news. We all had an initial facial expression that looked something like that—one of horrified disbelief.   

Keep in mind the 2000 election was tightly contested and Bush’s declared victory by the Supreme Court was very controversial. On September 11, 2001 George W. Bush was president of a nation where half the people voted for his opponent, Al Gore.  But in the early days after 9/11 the election and personal feelings about George Bush seemed to matter little to the press or to the population. We were all in this together and we needed a leader.  

In contrast, many on the Right claimed the Coronavirus was overhyped or even a hoax, a conspiracy by Democrats and the leftist media to tank the stock market and take down Trump in the 2020 election since the attempt at impeachment had failed.  On the other hand, moderates and those on the Left saw the President and his staff making false statements, denying and minimizing the impact of Covid-19 to soothe the stock market and antsy voters, sorely delaying timely response by the CDC and other health agencies.  

A recent study revealed that how seriously Americans are taking the virus is significantly influenced by their political affiliation (Republican or Democrat) and which news network they engage as their primary source of information. 

Recovery Versus Coping

After a natural disaster or a terrorist activity has done its worst, the work of responding and recovering begins. But the coronavirus is still with us. And we don’t even know how long it will be us. We don’t really know about the availability of enough testing kits or sufficient hospital beds. We don’t know how long we’ll be social distancing. We don’t when we can return to work, to church, to restaurants, to sporting events, to concerts and movie theaters. We don’t know when we’ll be able shake hands and hug each other again. We don’t know when we’ll be able to stop washing our hands like a doctor about to perform surgery.  

We currently have more questions than answers. It seems there is more that we don’t know than we do know. But we’ll hold onto faith and resolve. We’ll seek to keep not only our wits about us but even a sense of humor. And we’ll get through it together, however bad it gets, however long it takes. And when we get through to the other side of it we’ll celebrate together. Oh, how we’ll celebrate together.  

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Ramon Presson

Ramon Presson

Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Franklin, TN, and the author of several books. He has been a weekly newspaper columnist in the Nashville area for over a decade.

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