In the 21 years since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have relied on wartime tropes to understand the tragedy: “Ground Zero” conjured images of nuclear detonation; the dead were described as “fallen heroes”; the proliferation of American flags served as a visual symbol of unity; we conjured up a “war on terror” in response. We used these tropes to create a sense of solidarity, something we’ve also attempted with less impressive results throughout the coronavirus pandemic. In the last two years, calls for unity and common purpose have centered on the same talk of victory and defeat that permeated 9/11 discourse. Vaccines and therapeutics have been figured as weapons, and viral surges described as covid’s “counterattack.” We’ve been at “war” with a cartoon spiky orb, and we’ve been losing.
The way we speak about the pandemic comes straight from the conceptual mold of 9/11 — the last crisis we can remember fondly for the way it brought us all together, if only for a while. Such rhetoric was stunningly effective at convincing the vast majority of Americans at the time that military actions were not only justified but a necessary response to the attacks. That focus, however, left us blind to the extent of the internal damage, including the suffering of those such as sick first responders and civilians. While similar martial metaphors have failed to unite us as successfully throughout the pandemic, they may still serve to obscure pain and loss.
Framing major domestic disasters through the lens of war occludes a role for civilians on the front line, displacing them from our national narratives. In fact, thanks in large part to community advocacy, only recently has the 9/11 commemorative story been modified to include those who are suffering from or have died of 9/11-related illnesses like cancer, respiratory and gastrointestinal illness, and other health issues caused by inhaling toxic dust. Such health problems began emerging in the early days of the World Trade Center cleanup, but they broke into public consciousness only after being championed by comedian Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” in 2010, nine years after the attacks.
More broadly, recognition for 9/11’s second wave of victims has come after a decades-long struggle to secure care for those who cleaned up the World Trade Center site, and for those who lived, worked and attended school in Lower Manhattan’s toxic air in the aftermath of the towers’ collapse. All were assured by their own government that the air was safe to breathe. (Despite insufficient data, the Environmental Protection Agency announced within a week of the attacks that the air was safe, a claim that was debunked in 2003 in a report by the EPA inspector general.) All saw their concerns roundly ignored by those in power, even as officials invoked 9/11 to justify expensive interventions abroad.
But even though the wartime pomp of 9/11 made it harder to see this domestic tragedy unfolding, that same language has been critical for those seeking recognition. First responders had to lean heavily on their Bush-era depiction as the “first soldiers in the war on terror” when they went to Washington seeking care for their post-9/11 health issues. Others for whom that ready-made frame was a poor fit had to adapt their messaging in an almost comical exercise in creative marketing. The more than 300,000 civilians who breathed in the toxic air of Lower Manhattan after the attacks found that the only way to amplify public awareness of their illnesses was to position themselves as different kind of soldiers — troops in the fight to save the economy (a position that played into Rudy Giuliani’s assertion that “the resilience of life in New York City is the ultimate sign of defiance to terrorists”). But while the fantasy of toughing it out in wartime may have helped these patients achieve recognition, it was also what exposed them to danger in the first place. The media at the time highlighted their “brave” return to schools and homes, fulfilling their patriotic duty of “getting back to normal” as quickly as possible, breathing air they were promised was safe.
Today, a similar scenario is playing out in our covid-ravaged communities, and for similar reasons. As in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our obsession with “getting back to normal” underpins much of the conversation about the pandemic. This fall we’ll be sending our children back to schools that have no covid mitigations in place and repeating the same careless mistakes we made with students after 9/11, potentially imposing a lifetime of illness in service of our desire to believe that our problems are over — or, more troublingly, that we’ve “vanquished” them.
It’s this fiction of triumph that’s critical. Wartime metaphors feel good because they tap into our understanding that wars end. Never mind that war has been our reality for the past two decades, no matter how many times we attempt to bookend it into a set of defeats and victories. Indeed, it may be this implicit idea of a terminus that makes the fact of perpetual conflict bearable.
Much the same is true for the pandemic, which lingers in ways we find we can endure precisely because our martial metaphors accustom us to thinking we will definitively defeat it. But until we stop using wartime language to describe domestic crises, we’ll be stuck with an unrealistic notion of the future, unable to imagine it as anything other than a return to some golden version of the past where everything was “normal.” That means we won’t be able to meaningfully move forward, let alone confront the lingering traumas and other consequences of the crisis we’re still living through.
We have an opportunity, however, to think outside the war framing and look critically at which experiences and impacts should inform our covid response. The coronavirus pandemic in the United States is a self-inflicted national tragedy whose uneven effects on people make it hard to classify. The fact that it has occurred in an age of intense political polarization and was exacerbated by the incompetence of the nation’s leaders has only made matters worse. Like the story of 9/11, the story of the pandemic is about the struggles of civilians to be taken seriously in the aftermath of government negligence. They are both stories of the failure of institutions and imagination and, frankly, our failure to recognize them as such is tied to our inability to conceive of these events as chronic rather than acute disasters.
We are not living through a war. We cannot fight our way out of a pandemic. Understood in terms of their domestic ramifications, the coronavirus and 9/11 are both public health stories, not war stories. Responding to them properly requires attention to social systems and health infrastructure, neither of which tends to capture the public imagination like victories and heroes do. When we think about chronic problems through a wartime framework, we make them more tolerable, but at the expense of our capacity to solve them. We must stop speaking as if we were all good soldiers and recognize that some human tragedies are just that.