Op-ed: Jeremy Burman
‘This time you decide if my dad lives, so please: be a hero’
This is an historic moment. Twenty years from now, when we look back, we will recognize it as such: we are living through a rupture in how we will understand the world and our place in it.
I say this because, twenty years ago, I lived through my generation’s historic moment when I was a bachelor of science student at the University of Toronto in Canada. And I recognize the similarities.
I was in course when it began. I missed the first several hours of what is referred to now, in shorthand, simply as ‘9/11’. One second everything was normal, and the next we thought it was WWIII.
The lecture started at 9am. And my professor had a rule about phones and pagers being silenced. As a result, none of us knew that terrorists had hijacked several airplanes and flown them into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. None of us knew that the towers had fallen. I didn’t know yet to be worried about where my dad was.
Lectures at the University of Toronto run for three hours. So for that entire time, I had been thinking it was a normal day. I didn’t realize that the attack was already underway before the lecture had even started: the first plane hit at 8:46am, when we were all filing into the auditorium to get to our usual seats.
I have no idea what we learned that day. Something about the brain. I know only this much, though, because my schedule says that I was taking a neuroscience course at the time. I can’t remember any of what the professor actually said.
After the lecture ended, I headed to my college for lunch. Just like normal. But the dining hall was empty. There wasn’t even any food. I remember thinking that was odd.
I walked across the Quad to my residence hall, and I headed up to the Common Room. I could hear my friends. They were watching television. It must have been a quarter after noon.
As I came around the corner, I saw a replay of the second plane in New York. I didn’t know that the first tower had collapsed at 9:59am, or that the second tower fell at 10:28am.
I didn’t know it was a replay. I just saw the plane hit, and then I had a flashback of my dad saying that he was going to New York for a meeting. He had said something about the view being spectacular from ‘the towers’. At the time, I hadn’t heard any capitalization.
As I dialed his cellular phone, I watched The Towers fall. For everyone else, this was a replay. But for me, it was new: one fell, and then the other. My dad was alive, one moment, and then maybe he wasn’t. Then I couldn’t see anymore.
I thought my dad was dead. Everything was blurry, and my call wouldn’t go through: the circuits were overloaded. Nothing worked.
All I could do was sit and watch. I sat there for a long time, hitting redial. I just didn’t know.
I eventually reached him. It was a huge relief: he had decided to move the meeting from New York to Toronto. He thought it made more sense for that team to come up north, rather than for his team to go south.
My dad wasn’t even there. He could have been. He might have been. I thought he was. But he wasn’t.
My friends weren’t so lucky. One dad was a colonel at the Pentagon, with an office in the wing that had been destroyed. Another was a firefighter in New York. They were killed. They were among the thousands who died.
More Americans have now died from COVID-19 than were killed during the Vietnam War
As I’m writing this, the number confirmed dead from coronavirus in the Netherlands has surpassed the number of people who died on 9/11. For the United States, the count is more than fifteen times that. (More Americans have now died from COVID-19 than were killed during the Vietnam War.)
For the world, it’s more than fifty times higher. And I doubt we’ve even hit the halfway point: the daily death curve has flattened in some places, but not everywhere. Those are also only the confirmed cases.
The world changed on 9/11, and we can expect our world will change too. These changes will probably be most obvious at the airport, where—even twenty years later—we still follow the safety procedures brought in after that world-redefining terror attack. (Body scanners were unheard of before that.) It now seems reasonable to expect that there will be new safety measures implemented to prevent the spread of a future pandemic. Maybe temperature monitors, to look for passengers with fevers.
That said, of course, there is a big difference between the two situations. During 9/11, most of us were bystanders. Even the first responders in New York and Washington weren’t directly involved in the attacks themselves. It was mostly all aftermath. In the present crisis, however, we are both the victims and—potentially—the perpetrators too. Because you can spread the danger without having any disease symptoms, you might not even know that you carry a ticking time bomb.
This ignorance is a problem for individual behaviour: how do you act if you don’t know how to act? However, we can indeed use the recognition of our being ignorant to guide our thinking.
Moral philosophy (specifically John Rawls’ veil of ignorance) suggests we ought to assume that, in this case, we are ourselves the terrorists: ‘unknowing carriers’, or even ‘silent spreaders’. And not many people are comfortable with that notion. So let’s reframe it: be a hero!
Many more people would have died on 9/11 had it not been for the actions of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93. They took their plane back from the hijackers, and they forced it down. As a result, it didn’t hit the White House. Or the Capitol.
Those few heroes gave their lives to save many; hundreds, perhaps thousands. We are now being asked to do the same. Except that you don’t have to give your life. The goal is the opposite: for everyone to be safe, even when we don’t know what’s really happening.
Under the veil of ignorance, we all ought to behave as though we are carriers. That means staying at home if you can. It means sneezing into your elbow, and washing your hands regularly. It means keeping your distance: 1.5m if standing still, with no wind, and maybe as far as 20m if moving quickly on a bicycle.
A normal person couldn’t have done anything to prevent 9/11. But in the Corona Crisis, it has been left to us. We decide how many people die. This time, you decide if my dad lives. So, please: be a hero.
Jeremy Burman is an assistant professor Theory & History of Psychology