17 October 2014
What ails America?
You don't have to be irrational about the prospects of the Ebola virus spreading across the U.S. to be appalled at the poor handling of the initial outbreak. Two people may not make an outbreak -- not counting the Liberian who brought his infection here and died earlier this month -- but compared to the efficiency shown in treating American aid workers who contracted Ebola in Africa, the performance of that Texas hospital and the CDC are troubling. The two infected nurses may be the end of the chain, but Americans need to think about alternate scenarios, yet may have a hard time doing so. As Charles Krauthammer notes, "In the face of a uniquely dangerous threat, we Americans have trouble recalibrating our traditional (and laudable) devotion to individual rights and civil liberties. That is the fundamental reason we’ve been so slow in getting serious about Ebola." Nothing taken to excess is laudable, however, and in facing the prospect of pandemics that American devotion may prove a handicap sometimes. Back during the George W. Bush presidency people worried that a pandemic might be used as a pretext for martial law; the advent of Barack Obama only changed the identities of some of the worriers. But you may not need to be paranoid to take an "I don't have to do that" attitude toward recommended precautions or protocols. Krauthammer writes that "choosing between security and liberty ... is the eternal dilemma of every free society," yet our entire culture, it sometimes seems, conditions us to prefer liberty every time. It certainly seems to discourage us from recognizing inherent obligations to our fellow citizens, yet our obligations only grow more obvious as a virus grows more virulent. Ebola has raged through Africa because of inadequate infrastructure and bad cultural habits, we're told. American habits may prove nearly as harmful in the absence of an ethical infrastructure suited to the challenge. This alarmist tone may prove premature insofar as this outbreak may peter out after a handful of cases. But if a wider outbreak, now or in the future, can be blamed on people failing or refusing, from a desire to stay "free," to do the right things, more Americans may finally question whether "freedom" really should be any culture's supreme value.