Like so many Americans, I find myself glued to the television whenever Dr. Anthony Fauci takes the White House podium. His steady, knowledgeable voice provides that much-needed measure of reassuring confidence from our federal government. Fauci never sugarcoats the glum coronavirus reality we now live in, but his articulation and ownership of the facts allows us to envision a brighter, healthier future.
As I watch Fauci’s briefings, I can’t help but compare our current situation with my time leading the Department of Homeland Security following 9/11.
As I watch Fauci’s briefings, however, I can’t help but compare our current situation with my time leading the Department of Homeland Security in the weeks, months and years following 9/11. It has struck me more than once over these last few weeks that the health crisis facing us today has many similarities to our national response to the terror attacks nearly 19 years ago. It was, as I wrote later, a true test of our times. And it is happening again.
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Every American generation faces a defining moment — a moment when the true character of this nation is tested. For our parents, it was World War II, for their parents the Great Depression. The attacks of 9/11 were just such a societal juncture in our lives and the life of our nation. In its aftermath, all of us stopped to take stock of our lives and our choices. It was searing and tragic and shook our nation to its foundations. But it also reminded us of the inspiring greatness of individuals who choose to serve, in many different ways. And now we are witnessing this all over again.
Today the message is “wash your hands” and “distance from others.” Back then it was “See something, say something.” We all had a role to play, just as we do today. And despite harrowing circumstances, in both cases, we have responded. The resiliency of the American spirit cannot be discounted.
On 9/11, our heroes were the first responders who ran toward and into smoldering buildings, and those unbelievably brave men and women on board Flight 93 who refused to allow their plane to be used as a weapon. Their sacrifice defined our national response. Today we salute the nurses, physicians, EMTs and other health care providers who each day risk infection themselves so that they may save the lives of the thousands who fill up their emergency departments and intensive care units.
Our selfless heroes are also everyday folks. Truck drivers and their 18-wheelers travel the interstates with food, gas and medicines that we need locally. Our neighbor may stock the shelves at grocery stores or work as a delivery driver or volunteer at the local food pantry. The postal service risks the health of its workers to connect us, providing an often-vital lifeline.
While most citizens may not have a special role to play, as individuals we each have a critical one. Governors and mayors have urged us to limit our activities. We jeopardize our health and, more importantly, that of family and friends should we fail to comply. That is our personal test and we must not fail.
In those uncertain days after the terror attacks, I found myself standing at that podium — first as governor, later as secretary — trying to find the words that would help calm and reassure shaken Americans. Some days, especially early on, such comfort was hard to find. Without question, 9/11 changed our world. America has changed. And it is changing again right now. But much of what is important remains the same.
Historically, America is strongest when we try to rally together in the midst of adversity. E Pluribus Unum. (Can we put the political infighting on hold, or at least reduce the decibel level, for the next month or two? There is nothing inspirational, aspirational or comforting in such sniping). We are a patriotic, resilient and compassionate country on a collective mission to defeat this virulent enemy. And I think when this national nightmare is over, we will emerge stronger and better. This is, after all, the ultimate test of our times.
Tom Ridge was the 43rd governor of Pennsylvania and first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. He is a founding partner at RidgePolicy Group in Washington, D.C. and Harrisburg, PA.