Stop framing COVID-19 as war

Stop framing COVID-19 as war

Aram Kavoossi, Contributing Writer

Amid the anxious tides of last week’s COVID-19 coverage, a troubling headline gripped the hearts and minds of the American public.

“This next week is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told reporter Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday. “It’s going to be our 9/11 moment.”

While this might sound like a solemn call for national solidarity, statements like these are out to open scars.

This is not Pearl Harbor. This is not 9/11. There is no perpetrator behind this virus, and Americans are not its only victims. Agitational comparisons such as these, which have already sunk their claws into the 24/7 news cycle, succeed first and foremost in beckoning white America once again to the time-tested tradition of its own racism. COVID-19 is not the doing of any nation, people or culture. Nor should it be scapegoated as such, as the tragedies of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were and evidently still are. I shouldn’t need to remind you that the bombing of Pearl Harbor fueled rabid anti-Japanese sentiment among white Americans. I shouldn’t need to remind you that the federal government capitalized on this hatred to justify the imprisonment by executive order of 120,000 innocent Japanese civilians in the U.S. No warrants, no trial, no dignity.

9/11 was the prelude to a similar story for brown people across America.

I remember some time ago my mother recounting to me what it was like in our D.C. suburb on the days following September 11, 2001. American flags adorned porches and mailboxes all up and down our street. Red, white and blue trembled quietly in the wind as F-16 fighter jets roared periodically overhead to remind us of the fear we were meant to feel. As the military might of our nation shook the earth beneath our feet, she planted a little American flag in my little American hand.

Meanwhile, my father stayed inside, wielding what was perhaps the most frightful weapon one could possess in the U.S. at the time: a Muslim name. America convicted Muslims like my father as co-conspirators of what leading journalists, politicians and scholars deemed a corrupt and contemptible culture. This line of thinking would quickly go on to justify hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Middle East as revenge for the atrocious actions of 19 hijackers, and precipitated the unprecedented mass surveillance and religious profiling of Muslims in the U.S.. In the shifty, discerning eyes of supermarket shoppers and TSA agents, according to the confident ignorance of overnight Middle East experts, my dad was guilty of being himself. Guilty of being Muslim. Guilty of being brown.

Of course, this was nothing new to him. He had lived in America for decades at this point, having been forced to abandon Iran during the eight years of war between a nascent Islamic Republic and America’s then-sweetheart, former-President of Iraq Saddam Hussein. My dad was well-acquainted with Islamophobia by 2001, but the post-9/11 explosion of the ‘radical Islamic threat’ in American public consciousness didn’t make life easier. If you think the association of Islam and terror is a thing of the past, ask me or any other Iranian-American why our family in Tehran can’t come visit us in the States and why it’s so damn hard for us to visit them. And if you think it’s something new, ask me why my neighborhood mosque, which also serves as a venue for the local Muslim Community School and the Iran Cultural and Educational Center, is within earshot of a Maryland state police barrack.

Against the recent proliferation of Islamophobic and anti-Iranian rhetoric in the time of COVID, I echo the acclaimed filmmaker Asghar Farhadi when I insist that we are truly a peace-loving people. If these words achieve nothing else, they succeed in betraying the proclivity of the white American ear to hear exactly the opposite.

Today, we encounter a similar impulse. First thing every morning, we grab at our phones to be bombarded with COVID narratives framed consistently in terms of America’s favorite pastime: war. Surgeon General Adams’ allusions to World War II and the war on terror ought to illustrate as much. This is a deliberate and conscious association that authority figures are manufacturing and selling to the American public in order to project an imperceptible enemy onto people of color.

Unlike the cases of xenophobic exploitation that followed Pearl Harbor and 9/11, however, America’s enemy today is neither a race nor a religion. It is a virus, ungoverned by ideology and, in a feat confounding to white people everywhere, unable to discriminate against its victims. The members-only American healthcare system, however, does discriminate. Cushioned from the brunt of the virus’ impact by centuries of social, political, economic and epistemic domination, white America discriminates. But as the past and present show, recognition of these facts is perceived as an offensively tall order by the people who benefit from them the most.

Without a strawman, America feels compelled to trace culpability for the virus to its ‘source.’ This ‘source’ that conservatives have been so quick and keen to trace leads to nowhere other than the mythical magical Orient, the backward and malevolent playground (and figment) of the Western imagination. Donald Trump’s conspicuous insistence on the phrase ‘Chinese Virus’ speaks to the infectious grip of this desire on the American psyche. We cannot accept a racist blame-game as the explanation — as the excuse, because that’s precisely what it is — for the grossly nonchalant failure of the American government to account for and deliver on the needs of the millions of people who are damned by the structures and cultures of its own economic, political and social systems.

What I am saying, then, is this is not “our Pearl Harbor.” This is not 9/11. What this pandemic is, is an apt reflection of the state of the union and of the fear that America is drawn to as its most familiar source of collective national identity. This week, we occupy a grim portrait of our dying empire, and we are not allowed to leave. We occupy the all-too-real reality of America’s gross inequalities of wealth and resources, drawn along the expanding fault lines of race and class.

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