9/11 brought a sense of national unity. Why has the pandemic been marred by division?

Bad times bring out the best in people.

It must be true. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a cliché.

On the other hand, maybe clichés, like doctors, should be re-certified every once in a while. Does flattery really get you nowhere? Have good things ever come to those who wait?

Do bad times really make us better people? The 20th anniversary of 9/11 – occurring in the 18th month of the COVID-19 pandemic – offers a reality check. Also, a sobering study in contrasts.

Because if 9/11 brought us together, COVID seems to be tearing us apart.

"With COVID, there was a moment, early on, of greater unity," said Dan Cassino, professor of Government and Politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. "[But] it passed pretty quickly," 

We all remember 9/11. Or think we remember it.

That sense of national unity. The shared compassion for the victims and their families. The shared outrage at their attackers. The lionization of firefighters, emergency service workers, and others who risked their lives, sometimes gave them, to save their fellow citizens. The plaudits for the soldiers, heading off to war in Afghanistan, who are now – incredibly – just coming home. 

Contrast that with COVID.

The meanness. The divisiveness. The name-calling, on both sides. The very fact that we have sides, in a national emergency that, in one sense, dwarfs 9/11. A total of 2,977 people were killed in the twin towers, the Pentagon and in the plane crash outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Some 621,000 Americans have died from COVID so far – and it isn't over.   

A common enemy

"I think the quick answer is that it's apples and oranges, and that it's really difficult to compare national emergencies," said Aaron R.S. Lorenz, dean of the School of Social Science and Human Services at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey.

It's best not to oversimplify, for a start.

Discord didn't just vanish on 9/11. If you were Muslim – or looked like you might be – you were not included in America's big group hug.

"Those moments of national unity aren't necessarily a good thing," Cassino said. "Think of the spike in anti-Arab American hate crimes after 9/11."

COVID, conversely, hasn't all been bickering and finger-pointing. The crowds who applauded medical workers, the volunteers who made masks, are proof that not all the better angels of our nature have flown south.

But America's mood, now, does seem very different from what it was 20 years ago.

"When something like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, or even the Persian Gulf War happens, our identity as 'Americans' becomes more important because of what's going on around us," Cassino said.

Even back in 2001, we were a tetchy, testy, fractious nation – inclined to think in terms of identity in its narrowest sense. "Gay," Black," "Christian," "Southern," "Feminist" seemed real, to many of us, in a way that "American" did not.

Then the towers fell. A wall of smoke barreled down lower Broadway. People were seen – it's still incredible to think back on – plunging to their deaths from the 90th floor.

All of that was brought about by an enemy who saw us all as Americans, and nothing else.

"Those other identities that might divide us – like political party, or race, or religion – just don't matter as much in comparison," Cassino said. "So we become more united as a country. That doesn't heal those rifts in our society. It just papers over them, for as long as we're thinking about ourselves mostly in terms of that national identity."

9/11 gave us a foe. We had been attacked, by a foreign adversary. It was us versus them. And there was broad, general agreement on who "they" were.

But who is to blame for the current emergency? A virus?

Yes, as a matter of fact – but a virus is not a very satisfying bad guy. "9/11 gave us an external enemy," Messina said.

Perhaps it was really hated, more than love, that brought us together after 9/11. But at any rate, we could all agree on the culprit.

With COVID – depending on your political camp – the enemy is the last president. Or the current president. Or the people who won't take vaccines. Or the people who insist we all take vaccines. Or that woman not wearing a mask. Or the woman who yells at that woman.

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