It was soon after 9/11 that Americans were first exhorted not to let the devastating attacks of that day interfere with ordinary life. Within weeks, President George W. Bush was encouraging Americans “to go about their lives, to fly on airplanes, to travel, to go to work.” He was right: Once the federal government felt confident that no second wave of al-Qaeda attacks was imminent, it was critical to America’s economy, society and collective psychology not to let the tragedy bring a superpower to a standstill. Showing national resilience in the face of terrorist attacks actually counters the effectiveness of those attacks: Terrorism is inherently a strategy of provocation, and standing tough afterward actually thwarts terrorists’ very objectives. We’ve both worked on counterterrorism in the U.S. government — one in the year before and decade after 9/11 at the Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the other for much of the last decade at the Justice Department and National Security Council — and we both believe strongly in the value of building resilience in the face of terrorism.
Throughout the Bush and Obama presidencies, Americans developed an admirable ability to recover from terrorism quickly and go about our lives. Even after international and domestic terrorist attacks in the past decade such as in Boston, San Bernardino, Calif., Orlando, Pittsburgh and El Paso, most Americans generally didn’t demand disproportionate reactions, whether in the form of enhanced overseas military engagement or substantial civil liberties restrictions at home. We might not yet have our British brethren’s full ability to “keep calm and carry on,” but we’ve learned something in two decades. If anything, coping with international terrorism has led the United States — both as a policy matter and as a societal matter — to be slow to adapt to an evolving national security threat environment in which domestic terrorism, great-power competition, biological threats and other emerging issues demand greater attention.
Now the novel coronavirus is injecting Americans with a new form of fear — and, in a sense, rightly so, given the death toll the virus has caused in countries like China and Italy. So in a sense, it’s hard to blame Americans for responding with the type of resilience they’ve been urged to cultivate since 9/11: defiance and insistence on carrying on with ordinary life. The notion that “[w]e can’t let the virus win” seems to be contributing to the sentiments we’ve all seen across the Internet, from packed concerts to crowded bars to the insistence by some politicians that “it’s a great time to go out and go to a local restaurant.”
But a virus isn’t terrorism. There’s a clear consensus from health experts: The only way Americans can stop the spread of the coronavirus enough to give our medical services a chance of keeping up with it — and saving lives — is by social distancing. Going to concerts, bars and restaurants is precisely what we can’t afford — not right now, not for a while, not till we’ve “flattened the curve” of the virus’s spread. Even if we ourselves don’t get sick, we’ll make it easier for others who are more vulnerable to getting infected, risking their health and ultimately their lives.
There are some lessons we’ve learned from confronting terrorism that should be applied — quickly — to this crisis. Chief among those are improved coordination among federal government agencies; the use of interagency task forces with defined chains of command and competent leadership to force the bureaucracy to all row in the same direction; enhanced information sharing among the federal, state and local governments; meaningful engagement and cooperation with our foreign allies and partners; and augmented use of legal authorities that can unlock swiftly emergency dollars and put them in the hands of those who know how to spend them intelligently right now.
And we do need resilience right now — desperately. It just happens to be the exact opposite of the kind of resilience that we’ve been practicing for two decades. We need a new resilience that involves avoiding large gatherings and unnecessary face-to-face interactions; keeping our families and friends safe; caring for the most vulnerable among us; and figuring out how to keep our work and our broader lives on track through phone calls, email and videoconferences.
To be resilient after 9/11 was to get back on a plane. To be resilient right now is to stay at home.