9/11 to COVID-19: What Changed? | Opinion

"After September 11th, we came together as a country and rallied round the flag. But with COVID-19, it never happened—and it's certainly not happening now. Why not?"

That poignant question, from a caller to my daily radio show (who identified himself as Tony in San Diego), has no doubt occurred to many of millions of fellow citizens. Instead of facing down a national catastrophe with a shared sense of grief and determination, the pandemic promoted distrust and polarization. With the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack rapidly approaching, it's worth considering why America has responded so differently to a crisis that has left more than 600,000 dead from what President Donald Trump used to call "the invisible enemy."

Two indelible images sharpen the contrast between the national reaction to the challenge of 20 years ago and the current confusion and conflict over even minor issues like mask mandates and the utility of vaccines.

On September 11, 2001, more than 150 members of Congress rushed back to the Capitol building to connect with colleagues and to assure the world that the American government hadn't been paralyzed. As the sun went down, they gathered on the East Front steps, Republicans and Democrats alike, senators and representatives mingling easily with one another. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert addressed his colleagues and the world: "When America suffers, and when people perpetrate acts against this country, we as a Congress and a government stand united and we stand together to fight this evil threat." After a moment of silence to honor the victims of that day's horrors, the assembled politicos broke into a spontaneous rendition of "God Bless America," making up in emotion what they may have lacked in vocal skill.

A less inspiring gathering occurred in Franklin, Tennessee, earlier this month. On August 10, angry demonstrators assembled to threaten and heckle local doctors and nurses who spoke at a school board meeting in favor of mask mandates for elementary schools in Williamson County. As one of the medical professionals attempted to drive away, demonstrators blocked his path, chanting "no more masks" and "will not comply," calling their neighbors "God abusers." Video of the scene records one protester warning those on the other side, "there is a bad place in hell, and everybody's taking notes buddy." Another activist shouted, "you can leave freely, but we know who you are.... You will never be allowed in public again.... We're the people. You're not."

What has changed in 20 years to produce such dramatically different responses to moments of national crisis?

No one can plausibly blame politics alone for the deterioration of our ability to band together at a time of trial. In strictly partisan terms, the party breakdown in 2001 closely resembled the divisions of our present time. The election of 2000 produced more than a month of fierce legal wrangling with recriminations on all sides before a 537-vote margin (0.009 percent of the Florida vote) enabled George W. Bush to claim the Sunshine State, and with it his five-vote electoral college victory. That same year, the new U.S. Senate split down the middle, 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, just like today; Vice President Dick Cheney provided the tie-breaker vote, the same way Vice President Kamala Harris does at present. What's more, both elections unfolded in the shadow of bitter, failed attempts to impeach and remove the incumbent presidents (Bill Clinton and Donald Trump).

In other words, the years immediately preceding the Twin Tower/Pentagon attacks hardly represented an era of consensus and cooperation, and yet when terrorists struck, the nation managed to unify in a way that seems unthinkable regarding COVID-19.

It's obviously easier to pursue retribution against a human foe consciously seeking to do you harm than it is to strike back against an unseen virus with no personality or malevolent intent. But the contrasting reactions also highlight profound, perhaps permanent changes in media and popular culture in the two decades since 9/11.

September 11 memorial
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 17: Flowers are placed on names at the September 11th Memorial at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood on August 17, 2021 in New York City. Nearly twenty years after the attacks which killed nearly 3000 Americans, the Taliban have retaken Afghanistan in a somber mark on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. The Taliban, which took back control of Afghanistan yesterday, provided sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and the other plotters of the September 11 attacks. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In that earlier era, Fox News had just begun its rise to cable news dominance with its conspicuously conservative positioning. Nevertheless, its ambitious executives found it necessary for 13 years (1996-2009) to balance one of its most successful right-wing talkers, Sean Hannity, with the affable liberal Alan Colmes in Hannity and Colmes. CNN boasted a similar show of dueling (or at least dual) ideologies, Crossfire, initially featuring Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan. In this format, with various hosts representing Left and Right, the program flourished for an astonishing 23 years (1982-2005, with a brief, unsuccessful encore in 2013-14). Even MSNBC, which has more recently promoted unabashedly progressive programming, tried briefly to hire two right-wing firebrands—Michael Savage and Allen Keyes—to provide prime-time counterweights to its regular liberal lineup in 2002 and 2003.

In today's world of polarized politics, the idea of placing Allen Keyes (a three-time Republican presidential candidate and three-time GOP Senate nominee) on a liberal network (let alone hosting a show titled "Allen Keyes Is Making Sense") would seem the equivalent of mixing Red Sox and Yankees fans, or Jets and Sharks.

The fact that coverage by conservative media disagrees so frequently and ferociously with the reporting by left-leaning mainstream media undermines the credibility of every form of journalism. It fosters the sense that major sources of news care more about their ideological agendas than they do about transmitting the facts. As a result, Gallup Polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who say they have either "a great deal" or a "fair amount" of confidence in big media "reporting the news fully and fairly" has plummeted from a healthy majority (54 percent) in 2002 to a distinct minority (40 percent) in 2020.

Another change in the media landscape contributes to the heightened difficulty of bipartisan cooperation amid national difficulties. The dramatic, persistent growth of the internet and social media sources of news and opinion has made it easy to insulate yourself from points of view that differ from your own. This rampant tribalism makes it more likely that you will neither understand nor trust that daffy Bernie Bro who lives across the street, or develop sympathy or respect for your MAGA-hatted uncle who believes Trump won the last election in a landslide.

This retreat into monochromatic, defensive silos not only undermines constructive public discourse but encourages demented conspiracy theories on both the Left and the Right. Millions of dedicated Democrats still believe that Trump and his team stole the 2016 election by colluding with the Russians, while similar numbers of passionate Republicans feel sure that James Comey, Bob Mueller and other denizens of the swampy "deep state" cooked up the whole charge to tarnish the newly triumphant Trump.

It's not surprising that startling and dangerous developments would inspire worried citizens to conjure elaborate plots to help explain the inexplicable. But after September 11th, 2001, it took months before such preposterous notions (that the Twin Towers fell due to dynamite, not hijacked planes, or that the Pentagon was struck by a CIA missile, not a jet liner) began to circulate on the internet and elsewhere. What's more, very few reputable observers ever embraced such far-fetched lunacy, and certainly not members of Congress or other public office holders, who almost universally embraced the careful, authoritative work of the 9/11 commission.

Today, however, some of our congressional representatives have associated themselves with the idea that a Satanic cabal of blood-gulping pedophiles secretly runs the world, or that efforts to require voters to produce official ID cards amount to a racist scheme to disfranchise Black voters and roll back the civil rights movement.

In this context, it may seem less startling that doctors and nurses, for centuries among the most trusted professionals in any community, would be threatened for promoting common-sense public health measures. On the other hand, another deeply respected profession—law enforcement—stands charged with systemic racism and the deliberate targeting of Black victims, even after undeniably improved policing in the last 30 years has saved tens of thousands of Black lives from surging violence rates in inner-city communities.

Assuming the worst about our fellow Americans—be they doctors, cops, neighbors, teachers, businessmen or reporters—does nothing to encourage a more constructive sense of joint effort and shared determination. Americans should avoid naiveté in approaching our current challenges, to be sure, but paranoia and demonization never served a useful purpose in the progress or protection of our republic.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.