Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The New 9/11 Isn’t 1/6. It’s Covid.

The message of Covid is to give up more freedom for safety, trust the government, and treat your neighbors as potential threats.
Alberto Giuliani/Wikimedia Commons

It is important to stop every once in a while and take stock of things, to lay down some breadcrumbs to refer back to when someone asks, “How did we end up here?”

In many ways, the story is the same story. The message of 9/11 was: give up freedom for safety, trust the government, and treat your neighbors as potential threats. Now, 20 years later, you realize you went along with it because you were scared, even though the real threat was minimal. The message of Covid is to give up more freedom for safety, trust the government, and treat your neighbors as potential threats. Fear is infectious and now we’re here.

As a young David Petraeus said early in the Iraq War: Tell me how this ends. What is the Covid endgame? Victory was once defined as making testing available to all. Then lockdowns to free up ventilators. Then vaccinations. No one knows anymore what the goal is, but some sort of return to zero infections has about as much a chance as a democratic Afghanistan.

What started as “two weeks to flatten the curve” metastasized into 18 months of lockdowns, masks mandates, and now vax passports. Most of what has already happened was dismissed as conspiracy theory less than a year ago. Our society—work, education, shopping, entertainment, socialization—has been fundamentally changed by decree: emergency powers taken by government, not given by the people.

We are still somewhat free to move around, though flight may soon be only for the vaccinated. Hawaii has previously closed its borders, then opened them only to people who got vaxxed or tested. It became the first state to prohibit Americans from visiting a part of America.

Hawaii also became the first state to arrest American citizens for traveling inside America. Two men are currently locked up for trying to enter the state unvaxxed and untested. Their sentence was 10 days in jail, quarantine at gunpoint. The understood right of Americans to travel freely among the states has stood the tests of time, war, and economic crisis, only to stumble on a virus. Such horizontal federalism threatens to stop the Constitution at certain state borders.

Hawaii is just one state. New Biden travel regulations, however, will soon require Americans returning from abroad to undergo some sort of vax and testing regime. For the first time, Americans will need to demonstrate something other than citizenship to return to their own country. Biden’s plan tasks the airlines with determining overseas who can get on a plane to America, citizen or not.

That move is a critical departure. The right to travel has long been understood as one of the Fifth Amendment liberties of which a citizen cannot be deprived without due process. Existing quarantine laws (some of which date, ironically, to leprosy scares from when Hawaii was a U.S. territory) require the decision to admit a possibly sick American to be made at a U.S. port of entry by a U.S. government official, assuring some modicum of due process. By outsourcing enforcement to an airline clerk in Paris, as with outsourcing censorship to Twitter, Biden disposes of Constitutional protections.

Those who ask to see the science behind decrees (why 50 percent at bars, not 63 percent or 41?) are shunned and mocked. Why six feet of social distancing, not four or 12? No one knows. Why doesn’t the size of the room and its airflow matter? Can’t talk about that.

Acts of violence connected with masks and duct taping passengers on airplanes are considered means that are justified by the ends, and they are growing. One progressive voice advocates treating the unvaccinated last at the hospital (the writer, a gay man, has apparently forgotten when people demanded gays not get AIDS treatment because they chose sodomy). Are masks effective? It doesn’t matter, because it was never just about how effective masks are against the virus. What matters is that masks are very effective as an entry-level test of compliance, then later as a symbol. You know, like armbands.

Something of the good has left us. We leave no space now for people who choose to get vaccinated while at the same time worry about increasing government control. Many people opposed to masks are not anti-science, but anti-politically charged public health policy. The same thing can be either a life-saving medicine or an instrument of social control, depending on how it is used. When rational thinking is frowned upon and everything becomes fodder for frightened zealots, the pitchforks are not far away.

If you’ve ever been conned, you know the feeling. That tickle in your stomach when you realize the guy who took your money is not coming back to deliver your knock-off Rolex. You wait around a while, but at some point you get it. You’ve been taken. That’s where we are. There is no ambiguity. This all happened. It took only months, without a shot being fired.

Ideas dismissed as conspiracy theories only months ago are now policy. It is tempting to take a victory lap. We were right. But all that has been made clear is the what. The most important question is always why. Cui bono?

The Democrats clearly surfed Covid fear to beat Trump. But Biden shows no real interest in following through, assuming the role of tyrant, squeezing Covid for every grand plan he has on his list, as Bush did with parlaying 9/11 into invading everywhere. Joe’s crimes against liberty add up to something significant, but they have been implemented haphazardly. He never created, for example, a massive, over-grinding Covid Security Agency like TSA. Biden and the Dems just wanted to ride a successful vax summer into the upcoming midterms. Other small thinkers like Andrew Cuomo, who wanted to use his new public image as the Trump Covid Slayer for a White House bid, were taken care of as needed, much like Bernie was disappeared.

Are people suddenly so concerned about our health simply so they can get back to the bars safely? The flow has all been one direction, more control and less liberty. If the threat is so obvious, why has this needed to be so coercive?

So here comes the theory we’ll look back on to judge in full: There are powerful forces at work. Covid has not been about small political moves; it has always been about massive societal change.

Education, the only route for advancement out of the 99 percent (albeit not guaranteed) ceased to exist for many, who either stopped attending or merely suffered through thrown-together online “classes.” The average I.Q. of American children fell 22 points during the pandemic, according to one study, and suicide rates exploded. As the pandemic took hold, more than a million children did not enroll in school. Many of them were the most vulnerable, five-year-olds in low-income neighborhoods. Think lack of diversity has held POC back? Try this.

Many more were among those tricked into joining Darwin’s club by refusing vaccinations for the dumbest reasons. Large numbers of black Americans are convinced the Covid vaccine is a massive medical experiment with them as the guinea pigs (70 percent of black New Yorkers and over half of Latinos aren’t vaxxed; BLM plans an “uprising” against vax mandates). Rural whites were convinced the vaccines contain tracking microchips or were otherwise toxic. Others were blunted by Kamala Harris’s claim she would never trust a vaccine developed under Trump. Large swatches of the purportedly less useful in society (“deplorables”) are either dead, dying, or effectively mandated off the playing field. Someone else now controls who works, who gets educated, who lives.

The increase in murders from 2019 to 2020 was the largest since national record-keeping began in 1960. Economic disparity and homelessness increased. The police don’t create safety as much as they manage the results of inequality. If you are allowed to work (from home) you assume more of the costs of hiring you, like providing office space. New York may replace some unvaxxed workers with soldiers-as-scabs.

More and more people are dependent on debt, with their noses held just above water (i.e., they can make minimum payments) by government money: stimulus checks, unemployment, the A-Z of benefits. What little the wealthy pay in taxes is recycled through the poor back upward. Pathetically, in the world’s last superpower, the majority of young people now say YouTuber or “influencer” are their top job choices (true). Make one frozen burrito last two meals is their retirement savings strategy (kidding—sort of).

Can’t travel. Can’t work. Can’t go to school. Can’t make medical decisions. Can’t interact with neighbors. Can’t walk into places without government permission. Can’t depend on constitutional protections. Meanwhile the very wealthiest own spaceships. Naw, can’t be.

Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.