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Karen Greenberg: Will the U.S. Go to “War” Against Ebola?

A mobile lab set up in Guinea early in the epidemic

Sometimes, if you want to catch the essence of a moment, however, grim, you need to turn to humor. Recently, the New Yorker’s resident satirist Andy Borowitz produced one of his patented fake news stories that began this way: “The president of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker, attempted on Wednesday to defuse the brewing controversy over his decision to change the network’s official slogan from ‘The Most Trusted Name in News’ to ‘Holy Crap, We’re All Gonna Die.’”

Can there be any question that a pandemic disease, which may, by December, be spreading at the rate of 10,000 cases per week in West Africa and, in a deeply interconnected world, can head anywhere is worthy of attention, preparation, and planning?  Can there be any question that a major global humanitarian effort to stem Ebola’s course in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea is imperative? Still, you have to wonder whether the second-by-second coverage of the two cases so far transmitted in this country, including the quarantining of a dog, isn’t just the usual media overkill.  It’s a story that, like massive storms and extreme weather, has so many upsides for a media world that feels itself up against the wall: it’s easy to write (or film); there’s no need for “balance”; it’s guaranteed to instantly glue eyeballs at a time when your audience can be elsewhere in no-seconds flat; and it breeds overreaction and the sort of hysteria that brings in yet larger audiences, the sort that Borowitz captured so well.  On the other hand, it makes reality almost impossible to grasp by denying context or perspective.  Think of Ebola as the disease version of ISIS beheading videos. 

Add into the mix an election year in which Republicans are ready to tar Democrats with any kind of prospective disaster (and Democrats eager to blame Republican cost-cutting for the imagined pandemic-to-come).  The result: a growing mood that couldn’t be uglier or less amenable to thinking clearly about the actual dangers we face and what is to be done. 

As TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg points out today, given an administration already on the ropes over its new war in the Middle East, it would be all too easy for U.S. officials, amid the usual panic, to fall back on that comfortable template of the post-9/11 years, the war on terror, when it comes to Ebola.  After all, it’s already enscribed in the DNA of a national security state that is, effectively, a shadow government.  So no one should be surprised that Washington’s first response to the Ebola crisis was to militarize it.  U.S. boots are already on the ground in West Africa and preparations are underway for a possible future call-up of the reserves and the National Guard.  In other words, in his initial move to contain Ebola, President Obama sent in the U.S. military, an organization as ill equipped to deal with a pandemic disease as it was to deal with “nation-building” in Afghanistan or Iraq.  He also called for the formation of medical “SWAT teams” to fight Ebola in this country — not perhaps your typical image for responding to a disease, but one that fits this American moment to a T.  And the Pentagon has already responded by organizing “a 30-person rapid-response team that could provide quick medical support to civilian healthcare workers if additional cases of the Ebola virus are diagnosed in the United States.”

Since we already live in the United States of Hysteria, TomDispatch sets out on a tour today of possible future front lines as Greenberg explores how, in our strange land, a disease could end up being treated as the latest terror operation against this country.  Tom

Fighting the Last War
Will the War on Terror Be the Template for the Ebola Crisis?
By Karen J. Greenberg

These days, two “wars” are in the headlines: one against the marauding Islamic State and its new caliphate of terror carved out of parts of Iraq and Syria, the other against a marauding disease and potential pandemic, Ebola, spreading across West Africa, with the first cases already reaching the United States and Europe.  Both wars seemed to come out of the blue; both were unpredicted by our vast national security apparatus; both have induced fears bordering on hysteria and, in both cases, those fears have been quickly stirred into the political stew of an American election year. 

The pundits and experts are already pontificating about the threat of 9/11-like attacks on the homeland, fretting about how they might be countered, and in the case of Ebola, raising analogies to the anthrax attacks of 2001. As the medical authorities weigh in, the precedent of 9/11 seems not far from their minds. Meanwhile, Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has tried to calm the country down while openly welcoming “new ideas” in the struggle against the disease.  Given the almost instinctive way references and comparisons to terrorism are arising, it’s hard not to worry that any new ideas will turn out to be eerily similar to those that, in the post-9/11 period, defined the war on terror.

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