From 9/11 to COVID-19

The last time New York was the center of a catastrophe, America rallied behind it. The nation’s reaction to its coronavirus outbreak is a different story.

Low-angle shot of a New York City street sign and the Chrysler Building
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It’s a tale of two cities, yet it’s about the exact same city, in two very different times. Eighteen years ago, in the wake of Sept, 11, 2001, New York City became America’s city, and Rudy Giuliani became America’s mayor as the nation mourned something unthinkable. Now, as the coronavirus crashes into an unprepared country, New York City is again experiencing something unthinkable—but this time it’s doing so as an outsider, a criminal, an unwelcome foreigner. What’s changed? Surely New York is the same New York it was 18 years ago. What’s changed, it would seem, is the rest of America.

In the hours and days after planes hijacked by terrorists slammed into the twin towers, America recalled with a ferocious tenderness how desperately it loved New York. America loved the gritty, multicultural melting pot that was New York; it loved the way New Yorkers pulled together, demonstrating heroic selflessness and service. America loved its burly firefighters and cops and rescue workers. And America loved that New York bustled on, that New York pledged to rebuild. The city and the twin towers became the national locus of grieving, sometimes in ways that elbowed out the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the other scenes of 9/11 attacks.

There was something special about Manhattan in those weeks. It became America’s grief-stricken sweetheart. Cities and towns sent firefighters and EMTs to help out at ground zero and volunteers to assist with the hellish relief work. People across the nation stood in line to donate blood. Rockers organized a massive concert to support the city. And across the country, Americans took to sporting NYPD and FDNY gear to show solidarity with the heroic first responders and everyday heroes who had run straight into the path of danger to help strangers, often working without adequate protective gear. The Oct. 29, 2001, cover of the New Yorker featured children dressed for Halloween as the real heroes: New York City firefighters and police officers. And of course, as President George W. Bush struggled to respond in the first hours, Rudy Giuliani transformed into “America’s Mayor” overnight. Americans felt a singular pride for the patriotism of 9/11, a pride that lasted for over a decade. Movies, songs, and TV shows, tied themselves in knots to both affirm and elide the complicated relationship between popular culture and the city that never sleeps.

Fast forward to the pandemic of 2020, which has, in its earliest days at least, walloped New York harder than anyplace else in the country. As of this writing, New York City has seen more than 1,500 people dead and more than 57,000 cases diagnosed. But this time, New York City has not received an outpouring of national love and support. Instead, it has been shunned and shamed.

The president, in particular, seems to have no allegiance to his former hometown. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, himself outspoken in his criticism of the Trump administration, has received extra special and escalating abuse from Donald Trump in response to his urgent requests for help. Not only has the president been slow to send federal aid to the city, but last week he announced that he believed the city and its hospitals were actually being untruthful about the need for ventilators: “I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they’re going to be,” he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity last Thursday. “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You know, you go into major hospitals—sometimes they’ll have two ventilators, and now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’ ” On Sunday he went further. “It’s a New York hospital, very—it’s packed all the time,” he said in a Rose Garden news conference. “How do you go from 10 to 20 [thousand masks per week] to 300,000? Ten [thousand] to 20,000 masks, to 300,000—even though this is different? Something is going on, and you ought to look into it as reporters. Are they going out the back door?” In the event that anyone would mistake his meaning, he then clarified, “I don’t think it’s hoarding. … I think maybe it’s worse than hoarding.” Last weekend, the president briefly and publicly flirted with putting the entire tri-state area on lockdown; then he abruptly reversed course. But it didn’t really matter, because the damage had been done.

It’s strange, how quickly blame embraces the transitive property. In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo ordered a 14-day quarantine last weekend for anyone coming from New York, which included the spectacle of state police and the National Guard pulling over cars with New York plates and forcing the occupants to register with the government. Then the knocking on doors began. Mercifully, the policy was halted. Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also ordered the National Guard to look for New Yorkers at state airports last Wednesday. At a press conference, he asked how it was fair to Floridians for cities like New York “to just be airdropping in people from the hot zones, bringing infections with them and seeding the communities with new infections that they’re trying to stamp out?” As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern noted this week, nobody has been more explicit than DeSantis when it comes to blaming New York and New Yorkers for the spread of the virus. Instead of instituting social distancing measures, weeks after they might have been effective, DeSantis allowed his beaches to remain open over spring break while gunning for New Yorkers, setting up interstate checkpoints, stationing members of the National Guard at Florida’s airports, and forcing New Yorkers to self-quarantine for two weeks. Stern describes Randy Fine, a Republican state representative enthusiastically embracing the new strategy. “Seems like some of our friends from New York are trying very hard to make us like New York,” Fine announced Monday. “We don’t know how many people those criminals spread the virus to here.” Note that New Yorkers are presumptive criminals now. As Josh Marshall tweeted, “The future is FLA Gov. DeSantis today. The governor who left the beaches and almost all commerce open as the virus spread like wildfire across the country is now blaming his state’s outbreak on New York and New Yorkers fleeing to Florida.”

As Masha Gessen suggests, New Yorkers are quickly finding themselves with no good options. They can stay hunkered down in tiny apartments and listen to the sirens all night, or they can be pilloried for fleeing, a sign of disloyalty and privilege. Those who leave are blamed and shamed for both spreading the virus and using scarce resources wherever they land. Those who stay will be blamed for using up scarce resources in the city. There is no right way to be a New Yorker right now—just as there was no wrong way to be a New Yorker after 9/11.

Some of this is the result of obvious differences between the two events; the coronavirus comes with a heaping side of shunning, though much of what we’re seeing now goes well beyond the kind of shunning the coronavirus medically requires. But as Gessen reminds us: Tragedy always needs others. Even as 9/11 led Americans to rally around New York, it also led to a forever war and a decadeslong policy of demonizing Muslims and travelers from Arab lands. In some ways, the event only superficially pulled the country together before ripping it brutally apart. Today, in the absence of clear “others” to blame, we are inventing them. For a while, the foreign “others” that seemed easiest to blame for COVID-19 were the Chinese, and then Asian Americans in general (and yes, this happened in New York too). But now, blaming any New Yorker will do. It’s no accident that the city is a long-standing American symbol of multiculturalism, ethnic diversity, and openness in ways that date back to the Statue of Liberty, itself a former icon that has only recently fallen out of favor as a national symbol of tolerance and refuge. Back in 2001, we all celebrated New York for being particularly tolerant in the face of narrow-minded fundamentalist hate from Islamic extremists. It is a marker of a uniquely Trumpist, “America First” fundamentalism that this isn’t a quality to be celebrated anymore, but a soft underbelly to the MAGA dream that now threatens to infect us all. What we loved about bighearted, tolerant New York in 2001 is what cannot be tolerated in 2020.

It was always a fairy tale, but it was surely a nice one. Columbine’s tragedy was America’s tragedy. Las Vegas happened to all of us. Parkland, Florida, was everyone’s worst national nightmare. Regional differences were downplayed so we could grieve together. But Donald Trump came along to remind us that Puerto Rico is not really America, and Detroit is not really America, and California is definitively not America. It was an easy myth to puncture, and he has deftly and rapidly ensured that no city or state will ever be America’s battered sweetheart again. We are all on our own.

New York almost makes it too easy. The city has long been associated with unbounded greed and wealth, cultural elitism, and ethnic diversity. That encompasses Ted Cruz’s sneering dog whistle about “New York values” in 2016, and Trump’s newfound loathing of the city he called home for his entire life—a city he was maligning long before the coronavirus came along. Despite the country’s love affair with New York in the wake of 9/11 or even Hurricane Sandy in 2012, it’s also always been the case that the city coexists uncomfortably with the fantasy of rugged cowboys, wide-open spaces, and manly white men dominating nature, an American story Trump and his acolytes seem to love above all things.

Nobody can blame the coronavirus itself on this president, though we must keep track of how his failure to take action will cost untold American lives. But even as we sit here, waiting, it is worth remembering that Trump has led a three-year project in which leadership consists of laying blame, constantly and relentlessly, on everyone and anyone, and the more inchoate that group is, the better. Victims are to be further victimized, always. We have been so carefully trained in this response that even without Trump’s insistence that the media, Barack Obama, Andrew Cuomo, and thieving New York doctors are to blame for the rampant spread of the virus, we could fall easily into the habit of doing it ourselves. We haven’t had to do that; the president has still happily led the charge. The strangest thing is simply that New York is the same greedy, insomniac, starving, pushy, wisecracking, bighearted place it was in the days after 9/11. Americans need to hate her today because everyone needs to hate everything and everyone now. Just when we needed to rally together in a fight against death, we are realizing we’ve been primed to fight one another to the death instead. Even if the myriad historical acts of pulling together after national tragedies were planted in fantasy more than fact, the alternative—a vicious and slashing vilification of the other—will not keep any of us safe or free.

For more on the impact of COVID-19, listen to this week’s What Next: TBD.