For the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I’ve seen a lot of posts out there bemoaning the fact that our country came together to support each other 20 years ago, but we’re unable to do that today with the pandemic. The tacit assumption for all of that is that we’ve changed as a society, and that who we are now is fundamentally different than who we were then.
I’m not so sure that’s the case.
From what I’ve seen, people generally stay the same. They’re motivated by the same basic needs and fears. They’re looking for acceptance or validation or wealth or prestige. They want to provide for themselves or their family. They want to be safe and free. None of that has changed. On a local level, I still see people being people. Some of them are nicer than others. Some of them are meaner. But it’s not like that’s anything new.
And it’s important to remember a couple of things. First, when 9/11 happened, there was a very real, very tangible threat. Americans were unequivocally attacked, and so it was easy to band together against a common enemy. With the pandemic, that immediate threat didn’t really appear. The science behind what was going on was unclear at first which left things open for people to debate just how much of a threat really existed.
Anytime you’ve got room for debate, that debate will happen, if you involve enough people and give it enough time. And we’ve got plenty of people, and we’ve had plenty of time.
Second, the technology has changed drastically in the intervening 20 years. In 2001, there was no huge public forum for people to discuss issues and share ideas. As a reminder, here’s what CNN looked like that day. Here’s Fox News. See anything missing? Comments sections. Facebook was three years away. YouTube wouldn’t come until 2005. Even MySpace wasn’t around yet. There just wasn’t a place for people to argue.
That also means there was no way for news to spread quickly. There was also no platform for disinformation to run rampant. You had talk radio, and you had opinionated news sources, but if someone wanted to make up a news story, there was no way for them to do that and put it out in a way that the masses could be fooled into thinking it was real. Today, a lot of the really breaking news often appears on Twitter before it appears anywhere else. And making stuff up on Twitter takes pretty much no expertise at all.
It’s also important to remember that “unified” didn’t really count for everyone. There was mass discrimination against people from the Middle East (or people who looked like they were.) So sure, it might have felt great for many Americans, but it certainly didn’t feel great for many minorities. But again, that’s not the sort of thing that would easily appear on anyone’s radar. Not unless the news was actively reporting it.
And the unity wasn’t something that lasted incredibly long, either. Sure, President Bush’s popularity had a massive spike after the attacks, but within a year and a half, it was back down to about where it had been, and it only got worse from there.
Unified? Less than a year before 9/11, you had the contentious election of 2000, filled with debate over hanging chads and recounts. Opinions were very strong on both sides of that. It would have been much, much more heated if Gore had continued to press the issue and not conceded.
I think the biggest difference between then and now is that it’s easier to find out not everyone agrees with you. There are more platforms for people to speak up, many of them anonymously. And the challenge we’re facing is fundamentally different than the one we faced back in 2001. (And even back then, once we got past the attacks themselves, there came the big debate about who was responsible for it.
This might all seem discouraging, but I choose to look at it differently. I really believe the majority of Americans want the same basic things. The possibility of unity is still there, but in many ways we’re at the whims of our leaders. As long as our leaders refuse to compromise and lead by example, there will be no real chance of unity. Then again, we’re also in a unique situation where the people who believe the pandemic is a real threat also believe masking and vaccination are the way to defeat that threat. And the people who don’t want to mask or vaccinate generally don’t believe the pandemic is a real threat.
(Though again, I’d say a big part of that falls at the feet of key leaders and news organizations, willing to put their political and financial futures ahead of the health and safety of our country. At this point, the majority of people who are getting sick and dying of COVID are the unvaccinated. And the majority of those are Republican, according to polls. I really wonder if one side effect of this pandemic will be an even faster swing away from conservatism, for the simple reason that more conservatives end up dying than liberals. (Though, of course, there are also anti-vaxxers among liberals. They just don’t make up as big a slice of the pie.))
How often has perceived unity really just been a selective portrayal of what’s happening at any one moment? History often portrays complex issues as having had a consensus around their solution, but history typically favors the victor anyway . . .
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