Crises of Confidence: September 11th vs. Coronavirus

Date: March 17, 2020

By Josh Cohen, PhD, Deputy Director & Chief Science Officer

As I work from home, trying unsuccessfully to stay away from the latest headlines, I feel like I have been here before. Was it the 2008 financial crisis? No – that’s not quite right. For me, the feeling in the pit of my stomach reminds me most of September 11, 2001. Perhaps it is worth reflecting on that period to help myself get through the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. What’s at the root of how I perceived September 11th and how am I experiencing the coronavirus pandemic? Consider these dimensions.

Attack duration

September 11th – We didn’t realize it at the time, but the terrorist attack was short-lived. It was over by noon. It didn’t feel like it was over, however. There was plenty of speculation that the day’s attacks were only the beginning. The US mail anthrax attacks that started a week later – attacks that we later learned were not at all connected to Islamist terrorists – didn’t help matters. Still, things settled down in the subsequent months. We should, we were told, go shopping.

Coronavirus – We know from simulation models that the attack will go on for many months – until we have a vaccine or develop herd immunity.

Disruption to our daily lives

September 11th – I was on a 24-hour business trip to Detroit that Tuesday morning, that turned into three days stuck in my hotel room. I got back to my home outside Boston by the weekend, and was at work the next week. Returning to the regular use of airplanes took a couple of months. For a while, we couldn’t use the airplane bathrooms as we approached Washington, DC. There were some longer term impacts – the US got involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – conflicts I suspect we would have avoided otherwise. Those wars had profound impacts on members of the armed forces and their families, but not for the vast majority of Americans. There were long-term impacts to civil liberties – but I don’t think they concerned most people (even if they should have).

Coronavirus – For most people, the impact will be much greater. Those of us who can work from home are lucky. But those who work in the travel industry, restaurants, retail, even construction – on and on – their jobs are in many cases gone for who knows how long. School is out, but play dates are not an option. Good luck to parents of younger children. Nor do we know what is happening to children whose parents must continue going to work.


September 11th – For me, September 11th was challenging. There was a sense that terrorists posed an existential threat. Remember the “Clash of Civilizations”, and the prospect of a war against an idea, rather than the goal of a surrender ceremony on the deck of a naval ship. There were loosely guarded nukes and unemployed nuclear scientists in the former Soviet Union. My twin children had just started Kindergarten. In the weeks after September 11th, I really didn’t know if our country would exist when they grew up.

Coronavirus – The curve is going up-and-up-and-up… But we can be pretty sure the pandemic is finite. China and South Korea seem to have gotten on top of their outbreaks. And humanity survived the plague (multiple times) and the 1918 Influenza pandemic. Bad episodes, for sure, but (1) those pandemics did end, and (2) we have much better science now than they had then. The only logical conclusion is that we will get through coronavirus. There will be a terrible price, as many people have died, as will many more. That price will hopefully be mitigated by the steps we have taken to isolate our most vulnerable. For most of the rest of us – plans have been scrambled. Retirement funds have taken a beating. Graduating college students are wondering if they have jobs. All of that is hard to take.

Bottom line

If I made it through September 11th, I should be able to make it through the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Coronavirus is worse in some ways – its impact on our daily lives will last longer, and for most of us, it will disrupt our lives more. But on September 11th, we faced the prospect of an intelligent adversary whose goal was to destroy us. Now we face a microscopic strand of RNA.Very dangerous, to be sure. But we know how it behaves, and we have dealt with similar adversaries before. We know we will ultimately defeat it. If we can maintain this perspective for the challenge we face, we will all be better off. 

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