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Coronavirus death toll surpasses 9/11, Rutgers professor sees parallels between the two crises

Dr. Angus Gillespie, professor in the Department of American Studies, said the response from the media and the government after 9/11 is similar to how the media and officials are responding to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. 
Photo by Rutgers.eduDr. Angus Gillespie, professor in the Department of American Studies, said the response from the media and the government after 9/11 is similar to how the media and officials are responding to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. 

The number of deaths in the United States from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) rose past 4,000 as of yesterday, surpassing the total of deaths from 9/11, according to USA Today. In terms of government and media response, the current pandemic has many parallels with the events of September 11, 2001, said a Rutgers professor.

Dr. Angus Gillespie, professor in the Department of American Studies, said after 9/11, former President George W. Bush and most media commentators said the tragedy came as a complete surprise. But there were clues leading up to 9/11 that experts had noticed, Gillespie said.

In 1998, there were attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and East Africa, followed by the 2000 attack on a U.S. destroyer ship in Yemen, he said. There was also growing resentment toward the U.S. due to its involvement in Saudi Arabia, which was considered sacred soil.  

“Looking at the history, Osama bin Laden had a long, long list of grievances against the United States: the U.S. support of Israel, the U.S. sanctions against Iraq, the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “In fact, had anybody been paying attention, on August 23, 1996, bin Laden had declared war on the United States. At the time, pretty much nobody except the Middle East experts were paying attention.” 

Gillespie said he would argue that President Donald J. Trump made many of the same mistakes as Bush did in 2001. For example, one of Trump’s first actions as president was to cut funding to public health and medical research, as well as firing individuals on the National Security Council (NSC) who oversaw epidemic preparation, he said.

“As early as January of the current year, there were plenty of warnings that we were on the dawn of an epidemic. Yet, President Trump’s response to these warnings began by not listening to the experts,” he said. “The American response was delayed and haphazard.”

The New York Times and other media outlets reported Trump recently changed his tone on the COVID-19 crisis and said he is now enforcing new guidelines to control the spread of the virus. 

“I give President Trump credit for waking up to the crisis, shifting gears and coming around. But as late as Wednesday, March 18th, in a press conference, President Trump said the virus snuck up on us,” Gillespie said. “I’d beg to differ. No, it did not sneak up on us. There were warnings, but you have to listen to the warnings.”

Gillespie said politicians should listen to the experts on issues that concern national safety, regardless of party affiliation.

“I respect that if you’re a politician, you’re not supposed to necessarily be an expert on foreign affairs. You’re not necessarily expected to be an expert on (the) Middle East, but you should listen to the experts. That’s the whole purpose of the NSC. Not listening to experts leads to terrible outcomes,” he said.

Gillespie said the NSC is a professional group that is designed to give the president unbiased opinions. The next president, he said, should ensure that the NSC includes experts on topics like the Middle East, epidemiology, as well as climate change. He said the most effective political leaders are the ones who are willing to listen to scientists and experts.

During both the 9/11 and COVID-19 crises, the media has also, in part, contributed to misinformation, Gillespie said. For example, Bush and the media said the reason the United States was attacked on 9/11 was because the Muslim world hated the freedom in the United States, which Gillespie said had nothing to do with it. He said this is similar to when the Trump administration and some media outlets presented COVID-19 as a smear campaign meant to embarrass the president.

“A virus is not a political thing,” Gillespie said. “A virus doesn’t recognize Democrats or Republicans. A virus doesn’t recognize political borders. A virus doesn’t recognize a wall. It doesn’t have anything to do with politics.”

After 9/11, Gillespie said there was a unified response and general support toward Bush when he launched the invasion of Iraq. With the current pandemic, he said Trump’s initial instinct was to minimize the role of the federal government. 

“In the absence of a bigger federal response, we’re looking to the governors responding. One of the most vigorous responses has been in New York state where we see admirable leadership from the governor and the mayor,” Gillespie said.

He also saw similarities in the American public’s response to both crises. He said whenever there is a crisis, Americans rally behind their leaders and feel a surge of patriotism.

“We saw that in 9/11, when the first responders went to the smoking pile and tried to retrieve the bodies of the victims, and I think we see it now with the coronavirus crisis. The government has reached out to retired doctors and nurses asking them to return to service to help cope with this,” Gillespie said.

Compliance with social distancing guidelines is a symptom of patriotism and concern for fellow citizens, he said. Gillespie said he hopes that after the current pandemic subsides, public health will be better supported.

“It’s the nature of a virus that it comes and goes. In the period between the attacks, because there’s always going to be another attack, we can’t just go to sleep and not pay attention. Then all of a sudden, we have to play catch up again,” he said. “If history is a lesson, there’s a strong liability that we will simply lapse into not paying attention anymore. I hope that won’t happen, but I fear that it might.”