Psychologists have spoken at length about the stages of grief. There are numerous books written about the stages themselves, how to navigate through the stages, and how to identify where your friend or loved one might be on the grief journey. We don’t talk as much about the stages of crisis. As you might expect, the internet is full of observations on the 19th anniversary of 9/11. It would seem like there is not much to add, but I’m going to try to tell my own story and tie it into current events if I can.
I was doing the same thing in 2001 that I’m doing today. Well, that’s not literally true. Today, I’m home from work for reasons I will elaborate on later. Then, I was teaching and coaching volleyball at Pasadena High School. The planes hit the towers during our athletic period, so I did not see either event live. We had televisions in all of our classrooms, so we watched as much coverage as we could. Needless to say, no one was getting any work done that day.
Throughout the day, parents were coming to the school to pick up their child. The school is located across the freeway from a series of refineries and plants. Some of you may recall the numerous rumors of where planes were targeting. One rumor was that a school in Los Angeles was targeted. It didn’t take much to imagine a plane crashing into a plant and causing all kinds of damage.
The aftermath at the school bordered between scary and hilarity. Many demanded we develop an evacuation plan. What ended up transpiring is that we allowed students to carry cellphones for the first time. I’ll bet many of you thought we could blame school shootings for that. Interestingly enough, the rapid fire descriptions above actually depict much of the three stages of crisis.
The first stage of crisis is the pre-stage. As I said in a previous piece, presidents deal with crises all the time. We don’t hear about most of them because they get advanced information that they are coming and we’ve dealt with them before so we have an idea of what to do. 9/11 and the pandemic are really no different. George. W. Bush got numerous warnings that Osama Bin Laden was going to try an attack. The fact that 9/11 occurred represents some level of failure.
Of course, no one will ever be certain where that failure lies. Maybe the intelligence community couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was going to happen. Maybe Bush didn’t take the warnings seriously enough. Maybe the terrorists were just too clever. You could certainly go in any number or directions here.
The point is not to re-litigate 9/11, but to show the parallels between 9/11 and the current pandemic. Whatever the case, there was a breakdown in both situations. We could spend hours and even days arguing back and forth about exactly who is at fault. Sometimes you can do everything humanly possible and disaster still hits. This brings us to the second stage.
Stage two is where we see a sharp separation between Bush and Trump. The second stage is how we deal with tragedy in the immediate aftermath. This is arguably where Bush was at his best throughout his entire presidency. No one worries about blame in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. Those that do are usually shunned by people on both sides of the political spectrum.
The two main considerations of the second stage is to immediately limit the damage and to begin the healing process. We see this following natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and earthquakes. We see this following economic strife like recessions, depressions, and stock market crashes. We see this after human tragedy like assassinations, mass killing events, and high profile tragedies like the space shuttle disasters.
We want to see two things from our leaders in these moments. We want to see an acknowledgment of the pain people are feeling. We want to know that our leaders at least understand that some of us are in immense pain even if they themselves are not. The second thing we want is an assurance that they will do everything in their power to stop the pain. Admittedly, this is often an empty gesture depending on the situation. Sometimes there is little a president, senator, or governor can do to immediately stop whatever is happening. The fact that they are trying their best is enough.
Bush passed this test with flying colors. Trump has failed miserably. I could speculate as to why in both situations, but that would be rehashing some old arguments. It would be hard to argue with that statement. Some would argue that it isn’t important for a president to fulfill the role of consoler in chief. They are free to make that argument. I think most people on a human level would agree that it helps to have a leader understand the pain that his or her people are going through.
The third and final stage of crisis is the aftermath. How does tragedy or crisis define us? How does it change us? What exactly do we learn from it? Does it make us grow as people or do we somehow become a lesser person after going through it? This is where I fear that 9/11 and the pandemic will have the most in common. Many will argue that Katrina was Bush’s worst hour. That’s hard to argue with. It is also difficult to argue with the fact that the War on Terror and the Patriot Act might be the worst of his lasting legacy.
The tragedy of the aftermath of 9/11 is that he did the hard work of uniting the American people in the immediate aftermath. He squandered that unity. It would be impossible to fully define the aftermath of the pandemic because we are still in it. Yet, the fact that the administration seems to be so desperate to put it behind us is probably telling.
The fact that Trump has worked so hard to downplay it throughout the past six or seven months is probably telling. It demonstrates what’s really important. He chose to prioritize the economy over human lives. He continues to prioritize the economy in real time. It was really important that businesses reopen and schools reopen.
My district sent me home yesterday. I self-reported a sore throat and cold symptoms. These are the same cold symptoms I get every year in August and September when school starts. This time, they want to be safe. Thankfully, they are taking that step. Yet, you can’t help but notice breakouts throughout the country at schools. Heck, they even asked me if I had volunteered at another school in our district. I can only assume why.
In the backdrop is a cold, hard reality that is difficult to bear. I’m just a number. My immediate supervisor, building leader, and coworkers have all reached out and asked if I am okay. I’m not a number to them. That’s more comforting than you can know. However, it is hard to not look at what is going on and realize that on some level, someone has agreed on a number of people they deem to be acceptable losses. I’m just a number. Students are just a number.
In the book/movie “Fight Club”, the main character works for a major car manufacturer where he determines whether the cost of a recall will exceed the cost of lawsuits due to wrongful death or injury. There is an entire equation apparently. One can’t help but believe there is an equation somewhere in Washington. If COVID deaths stay below a certain level, it is okay as long as the stock market reaches a certain level, unemployment reaches a certain level, and the GDP reaches a certain level.
I suppose if there is an aftermath, it is that more of us learned exactly what our lives our worth. They are worth a lot to those we love and those we work with. They are worth little to the people making big decisions. Maybe your death or my death might be worth the unemployment rate dropping .1 percentage point. Maybe 100 deaths are worth .3 percentage points. How much are200,000 deaths worth?