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COVID-19 Has Killed More Americans Than 9/11

The death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is about to eclipse the death toll from September 11. And there's no end in sight.
March 30, 2020
COVID-19 Has Killed More Americans Than 9/11
(Collage by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

On September 11, 2001, four commercial airliners were hijacked by 19 members of an al Qaeda terrorist cell.

Two of the planes were crashed into the World Trade Center. One was crashed into the Pentagon. Passengers on the fourth flight communicated with people on the ground, found out the fate of the other three planes, and then stormed the cockpit, resulting in a premature crash just outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

In total, 2,977 people were killed that day—more than were killed at Pearl Harbor. It was the most deadly attack on American soil, ever.

You know all of this.

I am writing at 5:oo p.m. on March 30. At some point in the next few hours, the coronavirus will kill the 2,978th person in America, passing the death toll of 9/11.

And there is not yet an end in sight.

The truth is, we may already be over the mark.

Understand that the publicly reported death toll is merely the lower bound on the true number. In order for a death to be included in this count, the patient must have tested positive for COVID-19 either pre- or post-mortem. In some cases hospitals are so overwhelmed that people in obvious respiratory distress are being admitted and treated for COVID-19 without being tested, because an official diagnosis is superfluous and tests are being rationed. Some of these people die.

So for all we know, coronavirus may have already killed more Americans than 9/11.

But let’s leave that aside for a moment, because the exact number doesn’t matter. What matters is that you understand that this pandemic is bigger than 9/11.

By a lot. When all is said and done, the novel coronavirus will be the equivalent of multiple 9/11’s. Maybe two of them. Maybe five. Maybe thirty.

We’ll see. God help us, we’re going to see.

President Donald J. Trump is a large part of why we are where we are, because he failed to execute the basic blocking and tackling of epidemic management.

These procedures are not rocket science:

  • Restrict and monitor incoming travel from hot spots.
  • Stockpile essential medical supplies.
  • Prepare for the rapid deployment of testing that can be immediately scaled and processed on-site.
  • Aggressively test the population and prosecute contact tracing and quarantines along infection pathways.

That’s it. That’s the playbook. When you execute it competently, you get results like South Korea and Singapore. When you don’t, thousands of people die.

Despite what you may believe, Trump never actually banned travel from China and Europe.

We are nearly 90 days after the first public disclosure of the outbreak in China and America still does not have adequate supplies of protective gear for healthcare workers or ventilators for patients.

Most unforgivably, nearly 90 days into this crisis America is still playing catch-up on the design and production—let alone the availability—of coronavirus tests.

And to add insult to injury, while President Trump was failing to take the actions that would have mitigated this outbreak, he lied to the American people about the nature of the threat.

Over and over.

September 11 is the most consequential event in recent American history, surpassed, in the last half century, only by the fall of the Soviet Union.

This pandemic will be more consequential than 9/11. It probably already is. People just don’t realize it, because they still think—still feel—that once this is all over we’ll go back to the way things used to be.

We won’t.

There is, however, a key difference between 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic.

When you go back to read the 9/11 Commission Report one of the phrases that strikes you is that, in hindsight, the intelligence community realized that “the system was blinking red.”

There was evidence that jihadist elements were active and getting more sophisticated. There were prior attacks on the World Trade Center. There was a mountain of data—mostly SIGINT—and yet the walls between America’s various agencies prevented anyone from putting all of the pieces together.

Yet despite the conspiracy theories, neither President George W. Bush nor the American intelligence community actually knew the 9/11 attacks were coming beforehand.

But what if they had?

Imagine President Bush had been warned by American intelligence that Mohammad Atta was at flight school. That he was being bankrolled by Osama bin Laden. That he had assembled a team of 20 terrorists. That they had plans to hijack commercial planes and fly them into buildings on a bright autumn morning.

Now imagine if those intelligence warnings had been public.

And now imagine if President Bush had gone to a podium, day after day, and denied that terrorists posed any sort of threat to Americans. That the number of terrorists might be 19, but that in couple of days it was going to be down to zero.

Imagine, if you can, Bush continuing to insist that these terrorists posed no threat even after the first plane hit the North Tower.

Properly understood, 9/11 was one of the greatest intelligence failures in American history.

But what we’re seeing right now, here, today?

It is the greatest presidential failure in American history.

We know that.

The only thing we don’t know is how many bags we’ll need to measure it.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.