COVID-19 and terrorism9/11, coronavirus – epochal events that force a re-think
When the coronavirus crisis hit this spring, many people, especially in the USA, felt reminded of the time after 9/11. But beyond the shock-like caesura of the years 2001 and 2020, are there perhaps some similarities and connections that run even deeper? There is much evidence to suggest this: the interruption in air travel, the authoritarian response by governments everywhere, the closing of borders – and the resurgence of intolerance and conspiracy theories.
The restrictions that are currently being imposed raise the controversial question of which aspects of our present way of life are really indispensable and "systemically relevant" in the long term. Or, to put it another way: how much of a state of emergency are we prepared to accept, and for how long?
The new normal
For years after the revolution in Egypt there were no football matches, because those in power were wary of highly politicised fans who did not shy away from violent clashes. In Afghanistan, public cultural life has long since come to a halt due to the danger of attacks. And here in Germany, cultural life has migrated to the virtual space because of the coronavirus. Compared with the COVID pandemic, the era of terrorism seems almost like a prelude, according to the principle: things can always get worse.
That only makes it all the more regrettable that many Western politicians have reacted to the virus with the same rhetoric they used for the terrorist attacks: speaking the language of war and confrontation. Interestingly, Germany is an exception here, just as it was when war was proclaimed on Iraq in 2003. It is presumably because of the country's past that its politicians are abstaining from any war rhetoric. And rightly so. Because a logic of confrontation is even less effective in dealing with a virus than it is in combatting terrorism.
Viruses and terrorists have something else in common: invisibility. Just as every Muslim was once considered a potential terrorist, today every citizen is considered a potential virus carrier. A culture of suspicion is gradually escalating. After 9/11, only Muslims were the targets. Today, anyone can infect anyone without even realising it.
This policy by which everyone comes under suspicion indiscriminately is provoking resistance, fuelling the many protests against measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID. This is also a consequence of the fact that the scapegoat mechanism no longer works under the current circumstances. But instead of giving it up, people are busy hatching conspiracy theories, just to be able to blame someone, anyone, again.
The rampant culture of general suspicion and mood of insecurity represent a psychological burden that is often underestimated – Muslims could certainly tell us a thing or two about what that feels like. Policymakers are trying to respond with measures that suggest they are in control. But nobody knows at present which of these measures are in fact sensible and appropriate.
The right-wing populism that arose – in connection with the Islam and immigration question – after 9/11 is jeopardising through its general distrust of the state any effective containment of the virus. This has led to a protest movement that in many respects recalls the right-wing populist, Islamophobic PEGIDA movement.
In principle, it is not a bad thing to call into question the measures being taken against the coronavirus. But the arguments put forth should at least be based on facts and come from a value-oriented, ethical attitude rather than being driven by resentment, anger, frustration or hatred.
If we look at what is happening right now from the broader perspective of world history, it is striking how the virus and terrorism are both undesirable side-effects of globalisation. After 9/11, the response was a defiant "Now more than ever!" This led to a further acceleration of growth and globalisation and the unleashing of a neoliberal economic ideology.
"Only one thing had changed for the free-market ideologues and the companies whose interests they served: It had now become much easier for them to realise their ambitious goals," writes Naomi Klein in her book "The Shock Doctrine".
Globalisation and colonialism
The virus suddenly put the brakes on the neoliberal globalisation that had intensified after 9/11. This time around, we should seize the opportunity to change our thinking if we want to avoid similar crises in the future. But to do so we first need a precise analysis of what went wrong with globalisation: certainly not everything, but certainly far too much.
Colonialism, as a precursor to globalisation, also plays a key role in this analysis. Terrorism is a derailed descendant of the former anti-colonial liberation movements, that is, the attempts made by the global South to emancipate itself from the influence of the global West.