Applying the lessons of 9/11 to the coronavirus response

Applying the lessons of 9/11 to the coronavirus response
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The United States continues to grapple with the far-ranging consequences of the coronavirus, from the immediate public health, economic and national security effects to the long-term impact to our society, culture and national identity. There are few crises in U.S. history that have presented such an array of difficult issues to overcome.

While not a public health crisis, the al Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were arguably the last moment in the nation’s memory in which the same feelings of shock, panic, fear and uncertainty about the future rippled throughout. 

Some aspects of the run-up to the outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States and the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11 are eerily similar. In both cases, there was fragmentary but not thoroughly evaluated intelligence and information about the prospects of worst-case projections of what could occur. Policymakers at times lacked attention, focused on other priorities or made calculated decisions to accept more risk despite the increasing sense of urgency demonstrated by real-world events outside the country. Inside government, bureaucratic stovepipes, outdated architectures to share information or collaborate more robustly across departmental lines, and gaps in capabilities and resources to confront existing threats contributed to the unfortunate results that transpired. Within the United States more broadly, the public did not fully appreciate the gravity of the external threat, and the resulting reactions in the aftermath of both crises unleashed levels of anxiety not seen for long stretches.

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The 9/11 attacks forced fundamental shifts in America’s approach to counterterrorism that included a broad spectrum of offensive and defensive activity. The scope of the transformation was unprecedented in order to accelerate pressure and ward off future attacks from al Qaeda. Shortcomings in authorities, resources and capabilities regarding information-sharing and collaboration, border and aviation security, direct action and lethal force, and intelligence analysis and collection had to be addressed — while at the same time balancing the needs for individual privacy and civil liberties.

For years following the attack, policymaker attention quickly shifted to counterterrorism as the single most important national security issue. And while some critics would argue that this singular focus came at the expense of focus on other issues, it helped marshal the national effort towards preventing another attack of the scope and scale of 9/11 and delivering justice to those responsible. Presidential leadership also helped reassure the country that the attacks would not divide the nation, that fear would not change our country’s identity and that America’s greatest strength was its resilience and ability to mobilize in times of crisis.    

Much like the 9/11 attacks, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated clearly what needs to be addressed in order to ensure that the current crisis does not worsen by orders of magnitude. It also demonstrates the need to build a foundation that better prepares the country for similar episodes in the future. 

Current deficiencies with medical supplies, such as personal protective gear, ventilators and hospital bed capacity and intensive care unit facilities must be overcome in a strategic and coordinated fashion with strong guidance from the federal government working hand-in-glove with state and local governments and the private sector. 

Congressional leadership must be asserted to authorize and approve supplementals like the recently passed stimulus package to provide the necessary resources to prevent further economic dislocation, and once the crisis passes to create a bipartisan commission to fully explore what went wrong and how to address those shortcomings in the future.

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Longer-term efforts to develop preventive measures such as vaccines or other prophylaxes and treatments must be given the required funding to encourage research and clinical trials. Strengthening partnerships with other governments around the world will help share knowledge, insights and best practices and also amplify the existing infectious disease early-warning system to help spot and identify novel outbreaks early, before they travel from one part of the globe to another. All of this must be done with a singular goal in mind and without the partisanship that increasingly plagues our politics.

Despite the immediate pain and damage caused on 9/11, the attacks united the country against a common enemy and focused the national effort on preventing a repeat of what had occurred. The coronavirus pandemic is a completely different type of threat than the one that al Qaeda posed two decades ago. But applying the same basic principles from the nation’s counterterrorism response to 9-11 to the coronavirus pandemic may go a long way to overcoming its damaging effects.

Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and has more than 20 years of professional experience in Washington, D.C., on national security issues, including senior roles at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Council.