Frank Bruni: Why the coronavirus is so much worse than 9/11

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we were exhorted to defiance. I remember it well.

Don’t let the terrorists win, we were told. Don’t let them steal your joys or disrupt your routines — at least not too much. Be wary, yes, and be patient with extra-long security lines where they didn’t previously exist. If you see something, say something. But otherwise, resume normal life. Venture out. Revel.

“Get down to Disneyworld,” President George W. Bush said.

Disneyworld is now closed.

The specter of the coronavirus is utterly different from prior moments of national panic or devastation. I keep hearing comparisons to Sept. 11 in particular, and I understand why: The terror now is similar to the terror then, a wicked weave of vulnerability, helplessness and the inability to guess what’s next.

But there’s something crueler at work this time around, a psychological contradiction and emotional oxymoron that are peculiar to a pandemic.

At the very moment when many of us hunger most for the reassurance of company and the solace of community, we’re hustled into isolation. At the very moment when we most desperately crave distraction, many of our favorite means of release are off-limits.

It’s not just concerts and sporting events that are verboten or canceled. It’s not just restaurant meals, birthday parties, wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs. It’s not just action flicks at the multiplex, which can no longer fling superheroes at us when superheroes are just what we need.

To follow President Donald Trump’s latest, newly responsible counsel is to avoid any gathering of more than 10 people. That rules out, say, a children’s soccer match. That forbids church. Americans who pray are no doubt doing that more and harder than ever, but not among the stained-glass symbols of God, in the comforting clutch of friends and neighbors, with the balm of a pastor, rabbi or imam close at hand.

No, we’re advised or, depending on the ZIP code, commanded to worship like we dine and do all else at this juncture — alone, or as close to alone as we can manage. It’s called social distancing, and if an odder, uglier phase has ever been coined, I can’t think of it.

“Social distancing” is another oxymoron, because how is distancing ever social? To pull together, we must stay apart. It’s an epidemiological necessity. It’s also a kick in the gut.

I’m writing this on St. Patrick’s Day in New York City, but there’s no parade, and on streets proudly teeming with Irish pubs, not one is open.

Pubs, restaurants: After hurricanes, as we sift through the wreckage and commence the repairs, we’re typically encouraged to flock to them, both to bolster local businesses and reclaim a sense of normalcy.

But normalcy is the enemy in this pandemic. We have to behave abnormally to reach the far side of it. As my colleague Michelle Goldberg recently wrote, “This mass withdrawal is like social chemotherapy, damaging the fabric of our communal life while trying to save it.”

On Monday I spotted a friend on the street, and we walked hurriedly toward each other, propelled by the human instinct for connection. About 4 feet from her, I abruptly stopped, the siren of science suddenly blaring in my head. But she kept advancing, and I was paralyzed: Dare I correct and possibly sadden someone whose error was possibly a sign of how sad she already was?

I did step slightly backward, and she seemed to register that, ending up maybe 2 1/2 feet away: still too close, but less close than she might otherwise have been. We silently established some physical truce there. The etiquette of this pandemic is unwritten, and it’s brutal.

In the wake of Sept. 11, many of us sought to counter the economic toll by patronizing the kinds of businesses in New York and Washington that were most affected. That’s tougher with this pandemic. The most affected business are the ones that are shuttered, and our interactions with them can’t be transferred entirely to the virtual realm, though I’m consoled somewhat to see movements to purchase gift cards redeemable for restaurant meals, movie tickets and such at some future, post-pandemic point.

There will be such a point, right? We’ve been given no timeline, and that’s another special challenge of this crisis. It’s rolling rather than fixed, diffuse instead of discrete. It resists the drawing of any parameters around it. We have no idea what will ultimately be asked of us, so we can’t know what new emotional muscles to build, how strong they must be and what pace to take.

I’m beyond grateful for the Internet and the ingenuity with which people are using it — for yoga classes held via Zoom web conferencing, for FaceTime cocktails, for free classes, musical performances and museum tours that civic-minded, generous individuals and organizations are presenting online.

But none of these replace flesh-and-blood camaraderie, and I suspect they’ll become less and less satisfying as the lockdown on group activities grinds on.

“Staying home,” “working from home” and “holing up” have sweet, nurturing rings when they’re voluntary and exceptional. But when the seclusion is compulsory and spans an unspecified progression of days, it’s a lonely, claustrophobic and crazy-making condition. It’s not heaven but hell.

Besides, we have many homes, and we’re now cut off from some of them. College students have been evicted from campus buildings that were perhaps their safest and most treasured spaces. Workers have been barred from offices where they toiled, yes, but could also lift their heads, raise their voices and have a conversation — a face-to-face chat — whenever they needed that nourishment.

The pandemic is asking us to dig deep and stand strong as it takes away some of the most essential tools for doing so. If I were in the mood for jokes, I’d call that a Catch-COVID-19.

But jokes don’t fly right now. And in my eerily languid, palpably tense Manhattan neighborhood, it has been a few days since I heard the music of human laughter.

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.