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Stop Comparing Coronavirus to September 11th

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AP Photo/John Minchillo

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As the death toll of Americans dying from complications related to COVID-19 adds up, comparisons to other deadly events in American history seem to be inevitable. 


Just this past week, both the U.S. surgeon general and the governor of New York made headlines comparing this week's casualties to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the terror attacks of September 11. 

“It’s tragically fitting that we’re talking at the beginning of Holy Week because this is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives,” Jerome Adams said on Fox News

“This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment and our 9/11 moment only it’s not going to be localized, it’s going to be happening all over the country.”

I understand Adams' impulse here. He's trying to contextualize the numbers we're processing and the sudden grief and anger so many are experiencing as this deadly virus continues to spread. It's a powerful and evocative use of rhetoric to illustrate an important point. 

But, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were very different events than a viral pandemic, and COVID-19 should not be confused with them. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo took the comparison one step further. 

"We lost 2,753 lives on 9/11. We’ve lost over 7,000 lives to this crisis. That is so shocking and painful and breathtaking. I can’t... I don’t even have the words for it,” the New York Democrat said in his daily briefing Thursday. 


“There was no explosion but it was a silent explosion that just ripples through society with this same randomness, same evil that we saw on 9/11,” he said.

The same evil we saw on 9/11? No. 

This is an irresponsible and morally confused statement. It's also dangerous. 

The evil of September 11 and the evil of the Pearl Harbor attack were man-made. The attacks were perpetrated by human beings with evil ideas who purposefully targeted innocent human lives and destroyed those lives to advance their evil ideas. 

A virus has no ideas. A virus has no brain. A virus has no agenda. A virus has no free will. A virus has no morality. A virus is not evil. 

At a time when Americans are dealing with fear and grief and uncertainty, we need moral clarity and steadfast courage. To blur the lines between such evil acts carried out by an evil enemy - in the case of 9/11, an evil enemy who still exists and would murder us all over again given the opportunity - is a new kind of moral stupidity. 

People are dying. Those left behind are grief-stricken and terrified thinking they could be next. We don't need to be distracted with ambiguous moral relativism when no moral comparison is valid. It's actually quite damaging to our collective, American conscience. We know what evil is, and a virus, a strand of DNA, is not even capable of evil. 

Let's not put Coronavirus in the same category as the radical Islamist terrorists who deliberately targeted and murdered innocent Americans. They don't deserve that consideration. The terrorists of 9/11 were far worse than a mindless virus. They knew better. 


This sloppy sophistry is also confusing to Americans trying to make sense of the other-worldly reaction to this virus and the devastating economic impact on every American's life. 

If COVID-19 is the same as 9/11, then what about past years when our nation has faced a deadly virus?

As of the writing of this column, the United States has seen a little under 17,000 deaths attributed to the Coronavirus. Each of those deaths is a tragedy. And any comparison to other mass illnesses in our country's history is not meant to minimize those deaths as much as to give context and perspective to the toll our nation is taking as a result of the Coronavirus. 

In 2017, the seasonal flu in the United States was one of the worst we've seen in decades. More than 80,000 Americans died due to complications connected to influenza, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


To be clear, I note this not to make the case that COVID-19 is just like the flu or not as bad as the flu or should be treated just like the flu. Just like Gov. Cuomo or Surgeon General Adams, I am drawing a comparison only of the death toll and the impact on our lives. 

When Gov. Cuomo says the deaths due to COVID-19 is the "same evil we saw on 9/11" because of the number of deaths then what are we to make of the influenza outbreak of 2017? Is there a comparison to be made at all? Once you've ascribed the unspeakable evil of 9/11 to another event like this pandemic and then you find an objectively worse pandemic to point to, you have nothing left. 


This is why these moral comparisons are so dangerous. 

Let's leave our collective outrage over an act of war in an exclusive category of evil that we as a nation must confront and defeat. And let's put our focus on stopping a deadly virus in its own, very different category. 

And let's fight both with unity and clarity. 

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