On/off, in/out: From 9/11 to George Floyd to COVID

Binary thinking. Humans are prone to it. Our very language — and the act of turning an idea into language in order to communicate — encourages it.

In binary thinking, steel is either solid or molten and a person either can breathe or cannot. It’s what leads 9/11 Truthers to say, smugly, that jet fuel doesn’t burn hot enough to melt steel — they believe this sentence disproves that airplanes could demolish the Twin Towers, not understanding that steel can exist in states between “liquid” and “strong enough to hold up a skyscraper.”

It’s what led law enforcement officers to believe that George Floyd was in no grave physical danger: He could plead for his life, which meant he could breathe. It just didn’t mean he could breathe adequately to sustain life.

I’ve been thinking about how we know the danger Floyd was in only because the worst-case scenario came about. We, the public at large, only know someone had to intervene because no one intervened. If one of the police on-scene had intervened, George Floyd would have lived another day and would not have been a headline. If someone else had intervened and, say, been arrested for saving Floyd’s life, that may have made the news.

If it had hit the national stage, I imagine a few medical experts meekly saying that “Well, we’ll never know what could have happened in Mr. Floyd’s case, but it’s possible to suffocate while still being able to fight for enough breath to speak…” And a bunch of angry pundits screaming with evangelical zeal about how “We know the guy was in no danger, because he was breathing! If he wasn’t breathing, he couldn’t have been whining and making himself out to be the victim!”

So it goes, too, with a pandemic. We’ve long known that infection — the multitudes of coronaviruses that have thrived in bats with little exposure to humans, say, or a bacteria strain made resistant to antibiotics through human abuse — was a serious candidate for destroying humanity. It’s why there was a structure in place for people who knew about infection to intervene in the early stages of a pandemic. It’s tragic that much of this structure was dismantled prior to our current pandemic in the name of “small government.”

But we know it was tragic only because the pandemic was not addressed quickly or well. If an efficient, timely response had kept COVID-19 infections closer to the scale of the SARS outbreak of almost two decades ago¹, then most people would not believe that efficient, timely response had been needed. COVID-19 would be almost universally thought of as media hysteria, and life-saving government support for pandemic readiness would be seen as throwing taxpayers’ money away.

Because we’re binary in our thinking about alarm bells, too. If there were a wolf, it would have eaten the sheep. If someone cried wolf, it means there was never a wolf. Too difficult to comprehend that sometimes a wolf didn’t get the sheep precisely because someone was there to raise the alarm.


[1] At this writing, more than 26,000 times as many people have been infected with COVID-19 as with SARS, and almost 6,000 times as many humans have been killed by COVID-19 than by SARS. But it’s an imperfect comparison: SARS is better at killing once it has infected a human host, and it made the jump to humans 11 times as long ago, but COVID-19 is better at spreading human-to-human.



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