For the first time in the 19 years, I feel more frustrated than encouraged by the collective American remembrance of the tragedy of September 11th, 2001. The hollow lip service we pay to honoring our fellow Americans and to grieving their loss is hitting me especially hard this year, as I wrestle with the disingenuous affectation of it.
The American response to COVID-19 cruelly highlights the fact that many of us are motivated by and enraged by the needless loss of American life only as long as we are not ourselves called to sacrifice in any real way, no matter how slight that sacrifice may be.
It is not that it has escaped me until now that the American outrage and patriotism expressed in a collective national voice after the 9/11 attacks was easily generated for many because it cost them nothing to be vocal. It’s not that I haven’t realized that there was comparatively little action in proportion to the words. At least, I thought, we were united in theory, in ideology, in cause. I knew that sympathetic tears and emphatic calls to “never forget” were not concrete efforts to aid, but I believed there was still a measure of value in simply expressing support.
The American response to efforts to battle COVID-19, however, has demonstrated to me that many of us are only willing to be unified and patriotic when it comes without personal inconvenience or sacrifice. In the aftermath of 9/11, it was easy to be angry at foreign aggressors from a distance, to root for someone else to take action, to support their sacrifice from afar. When much lesser sacrifices were asked of each of us to save American lives during COVID-19, however, we balked and bucked, argued, resisted, and refused to cooperate.
Whether we prefer to admit it or not, there is a single, simple reason that so many of us are willing to annually recognize those lives lost on and in response to 9/11 but are so dismissive of the lives being lost to COVID-19…
In many ways, the comparison between the number of lives lost surrounding 9/11 and the number of lives lost to COVID-19 is not a fair or appropriate one. Those lives belonged to completely different people in completely different circumstances and were lost in a completely different way and for completely different reasons. They were still all human, American lives, though, and there’s still a tremendous sense of loss that lingers in each of their wakes.
I was already enlisted in the military during 9/11, and I was at work in the headquarters of one of our nation’s intelligence agencies on the morning the planes hit. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, I watch my peers rise to heroic levels in response to that fateful event. I met scores of brave individuals who were inspired by that tragedy to dedicate years of their lives, to sacrifice time with their loved ones, and to risk their own personal safety to try to avoid further unnecessary loss of American lives.
I have seen the same selflessness and conviction in some people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some healthcare professionals have willingly worked themselves past physical and emotional exhaustion in an attempt to save lives. Some have volunteered to temporarily abandon the comfort of their familiar daily routines to travel across the country to provide assistance in areas that weren’t enjoying the same immediate insulation from the pandemic as their own home areas. These professionals, much like the first responders, rescue workers, military members, and national defense personnel involved in the efforts surrounding 9/11, have been willing to take action and make personal sacrifices to save the lives of their fellow Americans.
Some of us, on the other hand, cannot be bothered to put a cloth mask over our faces while we’re in public. We cannot tolerate the inconvenience of not being able to visit some places or enjoy some non-essential services so that we can contribute to what should be a unified effort to slow the spread of the infection. We rant and rail against scientific information meant to keep us aware of our changing understanding of the virus, rather than spreading the word and cooperatively adhering to the corresponding guidelines as they are issued.
Whether we prefer to admit it or not, there is a single, simple reason that so many of us are willing to annually recognize those lives lost on and in response to 9/11 but are so dismissive of the lives being lost to COVID-19: it’s more convenient to voice support than to actually help, even when the requested help requires the most minimal of individual efforts.
So, today, I remember and mourn the losses of those affected by the attacks of 9/11. I acknowledge and mourn the losses of those affected by COVID-19. I also mourn the loss of my own naive beliefs about the extent to which most Americans might individually go in order to band together to face a tragedy and a challenge, to protect the lives of their fellow citizens, and to trade a small amount of personal convenience for the greater good of their countrymen.
I was willing to do what I was called by my country to do in response to the 9/11 attacks, and I remain satisfied with my contributions to that effort. I had the advantage at that time of being in the position of having both the skills and the opportunity to help. I don’t have the experience or knowledge to assist with COVID-19 as a medical professional currently, but I’m happy to do my part as a citizen to help reduce the spread. I do this knowing that, in the future, when I’m looking sadly back on the tragedy of COVID-19, I’ll know that my remembrance of those victims was coupled with meaningful individual action in an attempt to avoid more loss.