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The danger of comparing national tragedies

News fills our house 24/7. I’m almost not exaggerating. In the daytime downtime, approx. 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., my dad, working from home, will play NPR on the radio and, around our characteristically Midwestern dinnertime of 5:30ish p.m., he’ll switch on the TV to a generous mix of the PBS News Hour and CNN.

Now that I’m back from school somewhat indefinitely Spring term, I’ve been quickly inundated with the now-now-now. And with what’s going on, with our collective futures being ripped out of the ground, news station jingles have become almost like triggers for me. With every sounding of CNN’s horn-backed trill, I cringe, can’t think, freeze up, and in almost Pavlovian fashion begin to anticipate—or, worse, imagine—what next detrimental development has occurred. Our house, in short, is filled with these unceasing, constant reminders of crisis that thicken and carbonate the air until it’s impossible to even breathe.

I don’t doubt this was the case for those who experienced other national and international tragedies. (More on that word in a bit.)

As confirmed United States COVID-19 cases pass 400,000 and deaths near 20,000, it’s impossible, watching or reading the news, not to notice the comparisons people are making between the coronavirus pandemic and the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

Such a comparison, mechanically speaking, may seem inane. But the act of comparison does make fundamental sense, considering 9/11’s cultural import. U.S. COVID-19 deaths, for one, are substantially higher than the attacks’ 2,996. The majority of deaths—and Americans immediately affected—is and was centered, in both events, in the New York Metro Area. Both have decimated the airline industry. And the two seemed to have an unshakeable hold on U.S. culture during and after them; that is, for both, there was the “old way of life” and, inevitably, the “new normal.”

But in a larger sense, it does seem short-sighted to compare the two; especially in comparing numbers of fatalities, laying the two events side by side seems almost to imbue moral judgments within both events. That is, this contextualization phenomenon news outlets seem to love almost just turns into a game of Which Mass Loss of U.S. Life Was Worse. And through that it is easy to make counterproductive arguments, as many politicians in 2020 seem to have, surrounding when the whole situation becomes, quote-unquote, bad enough to care. Which can, and does, encourage non-action.

What I’ve often heard in broader comparisons between COVID-19 and 9/11 is the former’s general lack of an immediate cropping-up of American nationalism, a lack of what the U.S. government all-too-quickly jumped on in the latter: a black-and-white, “us vs. them” dichotomy, thought-terminating clichés that seemingly attempted to shift blame from the government, and its rash, violent foreign policy actions, onto the Middle East at large. But this new brand of post-9/11 patriotism—which seems to crop up whenever a popular notion of what is “anti-American” pops up—was truly in essence just an avenue through which the United States’ longstanding tradition of racism and discrimination could be upheld. Notice how phrases like “tragedy,” “terrorist,” and “never forget” have been weaponized to uphold and maintain sentiments of U.S. nationalism. You can see this otherism taking hold pretty readily in anti-Chinese, xenophobic sentiments in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic. 

David Foster Wallace’s 2001 journal-style essay, “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” illustrates this patriotism phenomenon well, especially in its essence of non-thought. Wallace focuses on his college town of residence—Bloomington, Illinois—and paints a portrait of the immediacy and strength with which 9/11 (which Wallace calls “the Horror” that “overrides all inhibition”) shook American culture, nationalism, and patriotism. “Everyone has flags out,” Wallace notes on Wednesday, September 12, 2001. “Homes, businesses. It’s odd: you never see anybody putting out a flag, but by Wednesday morning there they all are.”

It’s a cultural, historical rhyming. It’s an assortment of explanations. Justifications. For this behavior. This new yet all-too-familiar national pride imbues itself in seemingly every nook and cranny of the United States, and to Wallace it is a cultural and nationalistic shift too stark not to raise an eyebrow at it. It is in moments like these—and, as recently, with the shift near-national shutdown of almost all U.S. business—that the turning-point between the “old way of life” and “new normal” become most apparent.

While the public is not to blame, as they were more or less lured into this mindset, I do think a sufficient argument for the brainwash-y and engineered aspects of this point of view is that, among college students today, it seems to me through conversations and observation that this America Above All approach seems to have substantially fizzled out. (I’m probably not pulling from all possible piles here, having formed this opinion from talking to Carleton College students and my parents about this, but I do think I have at least a little bit of authority on the cultural legacy of 9/11 having been born in 1999, lived part of my life in northern New Jersey, and grown up in the shadow of a post-9/11 America. Though any characterization of America as some sort of cohesive whole, as I have unfortunately just done, seems problematic.)

These sentiments change. Time passes—and with that comes the inevitable incomparability between events as generations age, technology changes, culture shifts, and catastrophes go from events to dates to written lines in textbooks.

So I guess this whole thing is just a waiting game, but it sure can’t hurt to be aware of the ways we are—or are not—thinking and self-reflecting. It’s easy to act rashly and thoughtlessly in stressful and trying times, and it is especially terrifying that the government seems to know even less than we do where things are going.

The news is just synecdoche. Like the CNN and PBS jingles for me, this crisis is echoing throughout the nation, thickening the air and reminding us of the unshakable, and perhaps unfortunate, interconnectedness and interdependence of our lives. Anxious or calm, depressed or relatively plussed, this is all undeniably electrifying—all of us either directly implicated, threatened, or complicit. I think it’s important we direct that energy toward the wellbeing of others. And we have no cause to assume we’ve overcome past xenophobic habits. 

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