KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Twenty years ago, the nation united – holding vigils and prayer services – in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. Now, with more than half a million deaths, and counting, due to COVID-19, that same support is not commonly found, as opinions on masks and vaccines split the nation.
Matt Harris, a political science professor at Park University, said there are two arguments that could be made for the divide.
“COVID is sort of a slow-motion tragedy in a sense that it’s day after day,” Harris said, “but it started kind of slowly and now it’s ongoing for a long period of time, and I think that’s different from 9/11, which was the whole thing happened in a span in a couple of hours."
Harris also said people use different platforms to gather information now compared to 2001.
“Obviously, we had cable news in 2001, but not necessarily – we certainly didn’t have social media to the extent that we have it now, in the terms of that polarization of information,” he said.
Still, to see images and videos of the terror attacks left a lasting impression on many Americans, according to Gregory Nawalanic, a clinical psychologist with the University of Kansas Health System.
“To see that next one [plane] hit [the twin towers], it seared that image into a lot of people's minds,” Nawalanic said, “and even if you didn’t see it live, seeing it replay over and over again and then watching the buildings as they gave up their structural integrities and would fall, it was kind of this ongoing erupting nightmare.”
A nightmare that Nawalanic said caused the U.S. to surround the flag in unity.
“It was just something that everybody kind of shared and lived in that time," he said. "And over the course of that day and then the weeks to follow that, we all felt really kind of shaken to the core, and felt as Americans that we'd all been attacked together."
Fast forward to the COVID-19 pandemic, where the aforementioned polarization of information – that experts said stems from a divided message – has led to people pitting themselves against one another.
“9/11 [had] very unified messages from leadership in terms of, you know, just thinking back to the address from the president before Congress and the unification," Harris said. "The unity behind military [and] all that kind of stuff, you didn’t necessarily see that kind of unity for a lot of COVID policy, masks and vaccines."
From Nawalanic’s perspective, the length of the events also has played a role in the nation’s response. The 9/11 attacks began in the morning and had ended by midday, he said.
"Everybody was still kind of on high alert, all the planes were grounded and what not, but it ended," Nawalnic said. "Whereas with the pandemic, we're now, you know, coming up on the second year of this and so this has been an ongoing chronic incident.”
And when there’s an “acute trauma,” according to Nawalnic, people tend to “take notice because the threat is very real.”
“Though we saw the numbers, the death toll [from COVID-19], and the number of losses increase statistically significantly over the course of the first year, it's almost like we hit a max out point on our ability to really connect with that number,” he said.
Nonetheless, as the pandemic continues, Harris said it’s important to recognize the nation as a whole is more polarized than before 9/11.
“In terms of where we are as a country, the information is at our disposal,” Harris said. “They are different events, both incredibly tragic, and in fact the number of people we are going to be losing to COVID-19 is probably going to dwarf the number that we lost on 9/11.”
In the same vein, Nawalanic said, it's important to remember those who felt isolated and scared due to their beliefs and nationality following 9/11 and that those feelings could be familiar to many today.
“I think we just have to make the better choice and the safer choice and we have to try to come together and acknowledge the fear and recognize that anger isn’t going to get us out of this any faster,” he said. “It’s just going to create more problems.”