Stop comparing the COVID death toll to 9/11

We may evaluate the administration’s containment measures as appropriate, inadequate, short-sighted, prudent, delayed, right, or wrong (considering the contradictions of the World Health Organization, the tall task of policing private behavior in a country where civil liberty is — as it should be — sacrosanct, and the illusory dilemma of saving either lives or livelihoods, which beset our national conversation). But we may not in seriousness run the numbers and conclude that 2020 is “worse” than 2001 or 1964 or 1917. And we may not expect to be taken seriously if we suggest that Trump is approximately 60 times as culpable as Mohamed Atta’s crew, as if they are of equivalent moral standing.

Krugman’s tasteless commemoration last week invited the ire of the digital masses for suggesting that most Americans, after September 2001, didn’t retaliate against their Muslim co-citizens. But there was little objection to his claim that we are bedeviled chiefly by white supremacists (as incandescent Portland still crackles), and no qualm at all about his unrefined moral calculus. After all, the latter isn’t too surprising for an economist. But why and since when has utilitarianism become pop philosophy in the United States? Tabulating deaths, like units of pain equal across time and context, is a poor way of doing history. Next time a rogue arithmetician entices you with a version of this — asking you to appraise the damage of COVID-19 compared to the Third Punic War, or some such nonsense — dismiss it like an Aristotelian: confide that you would, in all honesty, rather have nothing to do with it.

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