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Ryan White, Kaci Hickox, and the Lessons We Still Haven’t Learned

As I have watched the unfolding story of Kaci Hickox in New England, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve seen this movie before.

Back in December 1994, the story began when a young 7th grader in Indiana got sick and his mom began to worry . . .

I was living in Kokomo, Indiana, and Ryan was attending Western Middle School, and it was something that I really didn’t even believe he had. I felt like, “How could he have AIDS?” He was a hemophiliac since birth, and I just felt like “How could he be one of the first ones?” I felt like somehow, in someway, it was going to be something else. I really never really believed he had AIDS for quite a while. At that time, of course, he had no precautions, or anything. There were no precautions at the hospital. And all of a sudden the CDC shows up and the CDC started putting in all kind of precautions, you know: the gloves, the gowns, the masks and so forth, and started talking to the nurses and so forth. It became apparent just like overnight that all of a sudden things were different.

When Ryan was diagnosed, they only gave him 3-6 months to live. So at that time, I thought every cough, every fever, I worried that it was going to be his last. And I really never thought he’d be healthy enough to go to school. But as he started getting healthy, as he started gaining weight, he started to ask, “Mom, he said, I want to go to school, I want to go visit my friends. I want to see my friends.” So I really kind of put him off for awhile and finally he just said, “Mom, I want to go to school, I want to go visit.” So It was a long process, we had to go through almost a year and a half, he didn’t go to school for about a year and a half. He was worried about taking the 7th grade over again, and he didn’t want people to think he was dumb, because he was a very smart and intelligent kid. So it was a long process. Through court hearings, we thought it would take one court hearing, and we’d have all these medical experts in so to speak, and then everybody would be educated, but it didn’t happen that way.

It was really bad. People were really cruel, people said that he had to be gay, that he had to have done something bad or wrong, or he wouldn’t have had it. It was God’s punishment, we heard the God’s punishment a lot. That somehow, some way he had done something he shouldn’t have done or he wouldn’t have gotten AIDS.

Ryan’s mom is being kind here when she says “really bad” and “really cruel.” It was vicious, ugly, and beyond hateful. There were voices in those days saying “Everyone with AIDS should be rounded up and put in a colony by themselves” or “round up all the gays — because this is a gay disease — and put them in camps.” Mike Huckabee, then running for the US Senate in Arkansas, was one of those voices, and he was hardly alone. While the scientists were saying that HIV/AIDS could not be spread by casual contact, the politicians — especially from the religious right — ramped up the fear. It took Ryan White and his family the rest of the school year to get a court to finally say “in a battle between evidence and fear, the courts side with evidence.” Even then, it took moving to a more science-friendly community to get support and encouragement as they dealt with Ryan’s illness.

It was, as AIDS activist and singer Michael Callen described it in his AIDS anthem, Living in Wartime (audio at the link). “They try to break our spirits/they try to keep us in our place//they do it to the women/and the poor of every race . . . We are living in wartime.”

Which brings us to Kaci Hickox, NJ Gov. Chris Christie and Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage, and ebola.

Christie and LePage talk about “an abundance of caution” and “responsible for the health of the whole community,” but their actions fly in the face of what scientists tell us caution looks like when dealing with ebola. Their actions make clear they are not talking about science, but caving — or catering — to fear.

Christie and LePage do not care about science, nor about health. They care about winning elections, and in a significant portion of the GOP base, science is not to be trusted. Creationists rail against science, NOM and its anti-marriage equality allies rail against science, anti-vaxxers rail against science, climate change deniers rail against science, . . . To borrow from Charlie Pierce, the evidence strongly points to the GOP as the party of Idiot America, and Christie wants to be its leader. (Charlie, if you’re reading here, I’m still waiting for Volume Two.)

Legal scholars have fun debating questions like “What is the worst Supreme Court decision ever?” and one of the cases that always comes up in the discussion is Korematsu v. United States, where a 6-3 majority approved the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The three dissents in the case were powerful, each in their own way.

From Justice Owen Roberts comes the plea for a little bit of logic, rather than fear:

I dissent, because I think the indisputable facts exhibit a clear violation of Constitutional rights.

This is not a case of keeping people off the streets at night, as was Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U. S. 81, nor a case of temporary exclusion of a citizen from an area for his own safety or that of the community, nor a case of offering him an opportunity to go temporarily out of an area where his presence might cause danger to himself or to his fellows. On the contrary, it is the case of convicting a citizen as a punishment for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp, based on his ancestry, and solely because of his ancestry, without evidence or inquiry concerning his loyalty and good disposition towards the United States. If this be a correct statement of the facts disclosed by this record, and facts of which we take judicial notice, I need hardly labor the conclusion that Constitutional rights have been violated.

Note the phrase “without evidence.” Despite the fact that Hickox tested negative for ebola, folks like Christie and LePage still want to imprison her.

Justice Frank Murphy stresses the absence of a link between the government’s order and the purported reason for the order:

The judicial test of whether the Government, on a plea of military necessity, can validly deprive an individual of any of his constitutional rights is whether the deprivation is reasonably related to a public danger that is so “immediate, imminent, and impending” as not to admit of delay and not to permit the intervention of ordinary constitutional processes to alleviate the danger. [citations omitted] Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34, banishing from a prescribed area of the Pacific Coast “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien,” clearly does not meet that test. Being an obvious racial discrimination, the order deprives all those within its scope of the equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment. It further deprives these individuals of their constitutional rights to live and work where they will, to establish a home where they choose and to move about freely. In excommunicating them without benefit of hearings, this order also deprives them of all their constitutional rights to procedural due process. Yet no reasonable relation to an “immediate, imminent, and impending” public danger is evident to support this racial restriction, which is one of the most sweeping and complete deprivations of constitutional rights in the history of this nation in the absence of martial law.

(This brings to mind the racist undercurrent of “n*****-lover comments” aimed at Hickox, asking her why she doesn’t care as much about Americans as she does about Africans. They didn’t use that word, but it’s clearly right beneath the surface. But I digress . . .)

But the strongest comments come from Justice Robert Jackson, and the warning he makes to his colleagues — and to us:

A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency. Even during that period, a succeeding commander may revoke it all. But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens. The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need. Every repetition imbeds that principle more deeply in our law and thinking and expands it to new purposes. All who observe the work of courts are familiar with what Judge Cardozo described as “the tendency of a principle to expand itself to the limit of its logic.” A military commander may overstep the bounds of constitutionality, and it is an incident. But if we review and approve, that passing incident becomes the doctrine of the Constitution. There it has a generative power of its own, and all that it creates will be in its own image. Nothing better illustrates this danger than does the Court’s opinion in this case.

(Have I mentioned how much I like Justice Jackson? Why yes, I believe I have.)

Chris Christie, Paul LePage, and others seem more than ready to pick up that loaded weapon. They cry “emergency” and set aside pesky things like evidence in their desire to transplant or quarantine people that scare them and/or their constituents.

My first appearance on the front page of Firedoglake came eight and a half years ago, when Christy Hardin Smith hoisted a story of mine up out of the comments in a post she had written on AIDS and made it a stand-alone post of its own. I remember the days from the 1980s of the shouters and the haters — people driven by fear of disease, fear of science, and fear of The Other.  I remember the struggles of those with HIV/AIDS, and those that people were worried might have it and give it to them. I remember the battles for research funding, the battles by hospitals and medical staffers to provide simple palliative care, and the ugliest kind of force being used to haul people out of the closet. I remember it all too well, and am appalled to see it playing out once more.

Yes, I’m old. But it’s the job of the old to remember these things, so that we don’t repeat them yet again.

Now get off my lawn.


Photo h/t to Roger Sayles aka Serfs Up! and used under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.