This column was to have been written during a trip to Strasbourg, France, where our youngest was spending a college semester abroad, and Barcelona, a city we have wanted to visit for some time.
That trip was canceled the day before we were scheduled to fly, so this column was composed in my office at home, where I regularly spend hours on end engaging in “social distancing.”
[After surmounting logistical challenges, our son made his way home to Atlanta, where – out of an abundance of caution – he has been in self-quarantine.]
Watching the nation’s response to the coronavirus designated COVID-19 – by the government, from federal to municipal, but also by the general body politic – I found a parallel of sorts in events not quite two decades ago.
The last time life in America was impacted so severely all but a few did not see it coming.
At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, a voice from New York interrupted CNN’s morning planning call with word that a plane had struck one tower of the World Trade Center. A short time later, another plane, like the first a commercial airliner, struck a second tower. A third plowed into the Pentagon and a fourth hurtled into a field in rural Pennsylvania.
On that morning, the sense of security that America rebuilt after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor vanished. Comparisons with Pearl Harbor were apt, in terms of the punch to the gut Americans felt and the gnawing feeling that had the dots been connected, disaster might have been averted.
Much was said post-9/11 about protecting the homeland from terrorists attacking with a nuclear or biologic weapon and yet the nation’s public health system remained vulnerable to a virus spread by people coughing and sneezing.
Unlike 9/11, when what had passed for predictability on 9/10 was turned upside down in an instant, three months elapsed between the time COVID-19 was identified in a Chinese city and when it gripped the consciousness of the American masses.
My guess is that, unlike 9/11, no presidentially-appointed commission will study the laggardly response by various levels of government, starting at the top, and why, despite warnings by people expert in the field, the nation remained so unprepared for a large-scale public health crisis. No report will be published and left to gather dust on a shelf, its recommendations pushed aside for the sake of expediency.
Nearly two decades after 9/11, the phrase “out of an abundance of caution” (see my reference above) has become ubiquitous. Shoes, belts and coats come off at airport security checkpoints that did not exist pre-9/11. Pockets are emptied for inspection before entering sports stadiums and many theaters. Americans by-and-large have accepted greater government access to their movements, their finances and their associations in exchange for an implied promise that nothing like 9/11 ever will happen again.
The coronavirus will result in a different kind of change. Maybe the nation’s public health system will receive the attention and resources it merits. The trend toward working remotely from a home office has accelerated. In those industries where it is possible, decentralization may look more attractive to those in the corner office. Similarly, the nascent movement toward distance learning, whether at the college level or in K-12, has found new adherents.
In Atlanta, as elsewhere, the Jewish world, by necessity, has explored how best to meld modern technology with thousands of years of religion. Worship is conducted online for virtual congregations as adult education and day school classes are taught for virtual classrooms. As I wrote elsewhere, what it means to gather in community is being redefined.
As in the days and weeks after 9/11, the chief topic of conversation with friends and family (albeit online or on the phone rather than in-person), is how the coronavirus has affected our comings and goings, what events have been canceled or postponed, what remains open and what has closed.
This crisis will end, but just as assuredly, not all will return to the way it was before. Some of the changes we are experiencing now will remain part of the foundation of our future, just as they were after a Tuesday in September almost two decades ago.
Dave Schechter is an award-winner correspondent and columnist for the AJT.