In the days after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando four years ago, then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called on Americans to remember a time after another national tragedy when we all banded together as one. “We did not attack each other. We worked with each other to protect our country and to rebuild,” Clinton said. “It is time to get back to the spirit those days—the spirit of 9/12.”
This rosy-eyed view of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was widely ridiculed at the time, especially on the left. “To whatever meager degree it is true that we did not attack each other after 9/11,” Brendan O’Connor wrote for Gawker, pointing out that Muslim Americans were very much not included in this national bear-hug, “It is also true that the resultant unity, born out of fear, was used to justify the embarkation upon two disastrous wars and the unprecedented expansion of the surveillance state.”
Clinton was not the first major American political figure to evoke the day after September 11th as an ideal of American unity worth striving toward. In 2009, four months after the country’s first black president won the most resounding presidential election victory in 20 years, then-Fox News carnival barker Glenn Beck launched the 9-12 Project.
The project was based on a list of nine principles and 12 values which Beck said were meant “to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001…we were not obsessed with red states, blue states or political parties. We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the values and principles of the greatest nation ever created.” Beck’s initiative had a presence at various conservative protests throughout 2009, but before long, it was quickly swallowed up by the Tea Party tornado.
Even considering our collective tendency toward amnesia about pivotal events in the history of the United States, Beck’s project was a hilarious attempt to merge the core beliefs of movement conservatism with America itself. “I believe in God and He is the center of my life,” read one principle, and another: “I work hard for what I have, and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable.” (One of Beck’s twelve values, on the other hand? “Charity.”)
Hillary Clinton and Glenn Beck are starkly different political animals who share very little in common aside from a relentless motivation to maintain relevance. So even if their reasons for sharing an affinity for the Day After are wildly different — Clinton, to get back to a time when it was safe to work across the aisle and a significant portion of the country wasn’t preoccupied by its loathing of her and her family; Beck, to encourage that hatred even more — what links them is the trust they seemed to place in how America responded to 9/11, and how their retelling of the following day omits the fear, confusion, and rage which drove that response.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Spirit of 9/12 over the past few days, as the federal and state governments scramble to respond to COVID-19 and it becomes increasingly clear that the coronavirus pandemic is going to be the most defining event in American history since the 9/11 attacks. My girlfriend and I are holed up in our 1-bedroom apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina, which hasn’t yet followed New York, Illinois, and California in essentially shutting down life as we know it for at least the next two or three weeks. It seems likely that our state eventually will as cases and deaths continue to spike and the virus spreads.
It’s hard to turn away from what’s happening in Italy and not think about the high likelihood that we’re next, especially considering how pervasive coronavirus is in assisted-living facilities throughout the country right now. It does not feel like the day after 9/11, either in the sense of how America actually responded or how Americans like to believe America responded. If anything, it feels like three or four days later, but in perpetuity. There is no “Now what?” anymore. There is only “What’s next?” and the despondency of knowing we won’t get an answer to that question for weeks, or months, or possibly even a year.
I turn 30 in April, or at least plan to. The politics of my entire adolescence were dominated by war and recession. The politics of my entire adulthood have been dominated by war and rampant inequality and now another recession even in the best case scenario. This country lets thousands of thousands people die every year due to a lack of access to healthcare. When it comes to climate change, our government has wavered between inadequate action and no action depending on which party holds to reins of power. When it comes to protecting the small shred of democracy and control of civic life we enjoy from forces like Facebook and the self-interest of state legislators, the government consistently fails to meet the challenge. When they’re presented with the option of holding the powerful accountable, they almost always choose the other thing.
It’s not a coincidence that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have frequently compared the need to mitigate the effects of coronavirus to a war. It feels impossible to believe that the American government could ever rise to meet a challenge that it can’t bomb into submission.
That’s not to say there isn’t some reason for hope. Last week, I began putting together a spreadsheet to help people find aid and volunteer opportunities in their communities. In just a week, it’s grown to contain hundreds of links, largely driven by an explosion in mutual aid groups all over the United States and Canada.
At a time when we’re being forced to isolate from each other more than ever before, it’s been heartening for me to realize that a lot of communities are coming together organically in a shared sense of solidarity. I’ve also been comforted by the fact that grocery and healthcare workers seem to be inspiring a level of public appreciation that’s usually only reserved for soldiers, one that their communities shouldn’t forget when those workers fight for better conditions. And there’s also some consolation to be found in workers coming together at places like Starbucks and GameStop to force closures when the bosses are more occupied with squeezing out every last dollar than worker and consumer safety.
The coronavirus is not a terrorist attack. It’s not an intentional strike against American empire and hegemony. It’s got no rhyme or reason, battering individuals and families and communities one by one. And so it seems right that the response has been most awe-inspiring and reliable at the community level and from the people powering those efforts. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has repeatedly fucked up and deflected blame from the very beginning, and it took over a week for the Biden plan on how to handle the crisis differently to begin to take shape.
These precious few reasons for optimism, of course, provide the same level of security as lawn chairs in a hurricane. But as the crisis deepens, falling back on each other is our only concrete option. Putting all our chips on our government doing what’s necessary to prevent ruin in terms of public health and economic ruin is a gamble we just can’t afford.
Screenshot: The Blaze