Closing the barn door after the swine flu is out

An Associated Press reporter asks President Obama if he might close the border with Mexico; the disturbing truth is it's not that simple.

Published April 30, 2009 2:45AM (EDT)

The president's press conference on Wednesday night was, thankfully, not dominated by a barrage of hysterical questions about swine flu, as it might well have been. In fact, only one reporter -- the Associated Press' Jennifer Loven, the first person called upon -- asked President Obama a flu-related question.

Specifically, what Loven asked the president was, "With the flu outbreak spreading and worsening, can you talk about whether you think it's time to close the border with Mexico and whether -- under what conditions you might consider quarantining, when that might be appropriate?"

Given the tenor of some coverage of the virus, and Americans' understandable fears about it, Loven's question probably did have to be asked. Certainly that question is out there in the media already, so it's not bad to have the president himself weigh in on it. But the very premise of it is faulty. Like Obama said, "From [public health officials'] perspective, it would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out, because we already have cases here in the United States."

Beyond that, though, it's far too simplistic to suppose that just closing off one border can make much difference. The truth, while not as useful for anti-immigration demagogues, is actually more disturbing: Every border, in every country, matters. And because of improvements in technology and the increase in global travel and trade, if a new strain of a virus wants to escape from the country of its birth out in to the world at large, there's not much that can be done to stop it, at least not if your approach is focused on border security measures instead of public health ones.

As Richard Preston writes in his book "The Hot Zone," "All of the earth's cities are connected by a web of airline routes. The web is a network. Once a virus hits the net, it can shoot anywhere in a day -- Paris, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, wherever planes fly." Granted, Preston was writing about Ebola, not influenza, but the point holds. Look, too, at the spread of HIV. One theory that's been offered to explain why that virus suddenly began to spread and develop into an epidemic, most famously documented in Randy Shilts' "And the Band Played On," is that a key event might have been New York City's celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, when, in Shilts' words, "the tall ships came from all over the world to New York Harbor."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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