I’m listening to the podcast 9/12, and each episode begins with host Dan Taberski repeating the show’s theme: “How 9/11 the day became 9/11 the idea.” You can hear him stress the italics on the air.
This simple variation in thinking about the event turns out to be a great angle for exploring its ripple effects: 9/11 became a fork in the road, and the route chosen by those in power shaped the history of the past 20 years. Tabersky is clear about it: The event turned into “A resource to be marshaled. A force that could make things happen.”
Admittedly, comparing 9/11 with this ongoing pandemic is an odd exercise: Apart from being disasters, the two have little in common, one sudden and shocking the other so gradual that one learns to live with the shock, normalizes, or even rationalizes the horror. But contrasting the reality of the pandemic with the idea of the pandemic still feels worthwhile to me, not least because covid, in all its slow-moving, resolve-testing relentlessness can so easily slip from grasp.
The transformation from event to idea (even if the event is ongoing!), happened somewhere after the first few months, after we had processed the images of army vehicles transporting coffins in Italy, had clapped from our balconies, breathlessly followed the news, and washed our hands until they dried out.
As the numbers kept climbing, covid ironically became more abstract. When we started, it was every doorknob that seemed like a potential cause for transmission. Now we know it’s aerosols that transmit the virus, something invisible to the human eye. With every day that went by, the response became more pertinent than the threat itself.
The pandemic might have killed more and more people, but some began believing that it wasn’t real, started spinning conspiracies, questioned the existence of the virus itself. On TV they were interviewing a right-wing politician from Germany who had requested a strong response from the government in March 2020 but now railed against vaccinations. Famously diagnosed with covid a few weeks earlier, the politician had nevertheless turned the pandemic into an idea, a reason underpinning her worldview that the fix was definitely in.
The territory of ideas is where the mind starts firing, where ideologies are forged and conspiracies manufactured. When the event itself fades into the background and becomes abstracted, it becomes easy to spin, reinterpret, or even to doubt its validity. Another podcast I listened to earlier this year explored a similar point: How doubt can be manufactured within the contested territory of shared ideas.
Ideology and belief are funny things to apply to a pandemic—after all, the pandemic doesn’t care if you believe in it. Unlike fame or cryptocurrencies the all-too-real death of thousands of people around the globe isn’t just something we collectively decided to believe in—but perhaps because the pandemic exist in this age of manufactured infamy, lives in an environment of ideas, it seems just as man-made to those who have divorced themselves from the facts on the ground.