In stark contrast: Pandemic paranoia vs September 11 resolve

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By John J. Metzler

Viewing the sorrowful September 11 commemorations, I was instantly transported back nineteen years to the terrorist attacks on America.  As I wrote back then, “On a picture perfect September morning, the Grim Reaper visited New York…it would be our generation’s Pearl Harbor.”

A mournful, nervous but resolute time. Then seemingly in a blink, I returned to the present to see the dangerous divisions eroding American resolve and clashing in our cities.

So we have two images here; the September 11th attacks which killed 3,000 innocent people in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon on that azure blue morning or the “invisible enemy” the coronavirus pandemic which seeped through our borders and soon exploded in our cities which has in a less dramatic daily but more devastating way killed many more Americans and is now nearing a million people globally.

Commemorating the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Twin blue beams of light shine into to the heavens. America dramatically changed that September day. The country came together in unity and purpose.

September 11 was carried out by Al Qaida, a jihadi terrorist movement which did not have a formal address but had bases in Afghanistan courtesy of the Taliban militants.

The Covid-19 virus, originated in Wuhan, China and spread to Europe and later the United States.

The September 11 outrage forged near instantaneous American unity and resolve.  Like Pearl Harbor there was a sense of responding with righteous retribution to the attackers.  Despite the bitter political divisions prior to the 2001 attacks, most Americans were soon on the same page as to assessing the threat and being willing to respond to it.  Even in New York City, Patriotism became trendy; flags were prominent, NYPD were rock stars, and the FDNY who lost 343 brothers in the World Trade Center towers deservedly became princes of the city.

There was a sense of bravado, reawakened nationalism, and almost swagger. We could take this and now we were coming for Osama bin Laden and the terrorist networks!

The U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan in Autumn 2001, became the first counterpunch in a series of focused military interventions which later sadly morphed into fuzzy nation building exercises.

Only now, nearly twenty years later, the Trump administration is set to finally withdraw the   majority of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.  We achieved our principal objectives, it’s time to come home.

Pandemics probably pose a more deadly but not as clear threat as did Al Qaida.  New York was hit by the terrorists but was seriously injured and traumatized by the covid virus which caused ten times the causalities and a sense of hopelessness and despair this past Spring.  Now we have finally turned that corner, but business still faces the aftershocks of the crisis and the municipal bureaucratic controls have slowed the recovery.

Again, the difference is that Al Qaida could be hunted down and largely liquidated.  A virus is everywhere, nowhere, but could be anywhere tomorrow and is never quite gone. Obviously, a SEAL Team can’t see it through the crosshairs of an infrared sniper rifle.  Our first-responders and health professionals can defend against it but at the same time, be overwhelmed by both the scope and the fear factor.

Back before September 11 there was a smoldering post-election discord still yammering about George W. Bush’s narrow win the previous November.  Even in New York, during Summer 2001 Mayor Rudy Giuliani had very poor poll numbers; until following the attacks when his leadership made him America’s Mayor.

Post-September 11th symbolism abounds. Wall Street showed its resolve and reopened on September 17 (the DOW stood at 8,920)!  The point was to bring back the normal and not panic.

President George W. Bush famously threw the first pitch in Yankee Stadium, signaling grit and resolve during the baseball season in game three of the World Series.

Currently compounding the virus has been a political pandemic of social media discord, hate, conspiracy and churning angst not only about the Trump administration, but also American institutions.  Irrational hatred for the President mixed in a polemic of media misinformation has tolerated a climate of violence, condoned rife historical revisionism and rooted for a race towards mediocracy.

Now in the midst of a contentious presidential election campaign America again stands at a crossroads. Looking at the last six months of the pandemic, the last thing we needed was a “chicken little” administration telling us to panic as if the “sky is falling.” It is not.

Commemorating the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Twin blue beams of light shine into to the heavens. America dramatically changed that September day. The country came together in unity and purpose. Liberty was cherished.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]