It certainly seems as though there have been a lot of fearful events over this long hot summer of 2014. Yahoos with too much firepower are blowing airliners out of the sky, terrorists are videotaping themselves beheading journalists, and police are shooting unarmed kids down in the streets of America, just to name a few incidents of the past few months. But it's hard to imagine anything more scary than a rapidly mutating contagious killer disease pandemic that features all the worst symptoms of the flu until it culminates in bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and rectum, the eyes swell shut, your genitals swell up, all of your skin hurts and you have a blood-filled rash all over your body. And then you die. In the panoply of things to be afraid of you'd think everyone could acknowledge that this is the big one.
In an Op-Ed in the New York Times last week Michael T. Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, laid out a potential scenario right out of a movies -- a horror movie. He discusses the very real potential that Ebola will make its move into the mega-cities of Africa, which will make it much more difficult to contain than it has been in previous outbreaks in the smaller villages. But this should make your hair stand on end:
The second possibility is one that virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely considering in private: that an Ebola virus could mutate to become transmissible through the air. You can now get Ebola only through direct contact with bodily fluids. But viruses like Ebola are notoriously sloppy in replicating, meaning the virus entering one person may be genetically different from the virus entering the next. The current Ebola virus’s hyper-evolution is unprecedented; there has been more human-to-human transmission in the past four months than most likely occurred in the last 500 to 1,000 years. Each new infection represents trillions of throws of the genetic dice.
If certain mutations occurred, it would mean that just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola. Infections could spread quickly to every part of the globe, as the H1N1 influenza virus did in 2009, after its birth in Mexico.
This article in Wired discusses a recent epidemiology study that shows the "reproductive number" of the virus could end up infecting nearly a quarter of a million people by the end of this year. That's what I call scary.
There's no need to panic, of course. This is just one of many possibilities. But the fact that this virus's hyper-evolution is unprecedented should make us all pay close attention. And some people are, including the president who made a big speech this week in which he announced that he would send 3,000 troops to Africa in an effort that will "entail command and control, logistics expertise, training, and engineering support." The administration is being forthright that this is a very serious crisis and may cost upward of a billion dollars to successfully combat.
Now if there's one thing we can usually count on from the right it's that they will back the troops. Indeed, their first reflex is to send in the armed forces to solve just about any crisis, especially overseas. Right now they are nearly frothing at the mouth over President Obama's ISIS strategy because it doesn't include enough of an armed commitment to eradicate what they see as a uniquely dangerous threat to America. Sen. Lindsey Graham shrieked on behalf of the entire American right wing when he declared over the weekend:
“[T]hey’re intending to come here. So, I will not let this president suggest to the American people we can outsource our security and this is not about our safety. There is no way in hell you can form an army on the ground to go into Syria, to destroy ISIL without a substantial American component. And to destroy ISIL, you have to kill or capture their leaders, take the territory they hold back, cut off their financing and destroy their capability to regenerate.
“This is a war we’re fighting, it is not a counterterrorism operation! This is not Somalia; this is not Yemen; this is a turning point in the war on terror. Our strategy will fail yet again. This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.”
If they survive our best shot, this is the last best chance, to knock him out, then they will open the gates of hell to spill out on the world. This is not a Sunni versus Sunni problem, this is ISIL versus mankind!”
They are, as Graham illustrates there, nearly paralyzed with fear over the threat of ISIS and are demanding that the president commit to all-out war with American troops on the ground to stop them. One can only assume they mean for the U.S. to occupy the entire Middle East for the foreseeable future as John McCain once quipped he was prepared to do "for a hundred years." They certainly haven't offered any other scenarios that would address the issues in the comprehensive way they seem to think is necessary.
And all of this hand-wringing is despite numerous intelligence analyses that show ISIS is not an immediate threat to the United States (but rather a threat to the fragile order in the Middle East, which isn't the same thing). They are hysterical about the possibility of an ISIS terrorist sneaking over the border to kill us all in our beds because we have failed to build a thousand-mile wall high enough or a moat deep enough to keep everyone out forever. (As Joan Walsh documented, the threat as "exposed" by James O'Keefe and company is almost too ludicrous to even be funny.)
But what definitely isn't funny is the reaction these people are having to the Ebola threat. Media Matters documented the reactions:
Former congressman and Tea Party icon Allen West:
The world need to step up against Islamo-fascism but I suppose fighting Ebola is easier for a faux Commander-in-Chief than to fight a real enemy of America. Nice optics there Barack, good try to change the subject, and make yourself seem like a leader fighting a really bad flu bug --- all the while you dismiss the cockroaches who behead Americans.
Sean Hannity said that we should be sending those 3,000 soldiers to Iraq. (He did say he felt "bad" for the people who had Ebola, though, so he isn't a total monster.) Rush also complained that we are sending troops to "fight" Ebola (which he claimed not to understand) when we should be sending them to fight ISIS. But nobody sounded more shockingly ignorant than the Cersei Lannister of the right wing, Laura Ingraham:
"I'm just getting very confused about the nature of this enemy. Is it those scary little worms that Drudge always has on the Drudge Report? The scary little Ebola worms? Is that the real threat to national security?"
The woman went to Dartmouth.
She did go on to say that if we really want to stop Ebola the way to do it is to seal our borders. (For her, Ebola and small child refugees are the same thing.) Of course these people aren't big believers in science, we knew that, so one supposes it's too much to ask for most of them to be able to tell the difference between lurid terrorist propaganda and a real existential threat from a deadly disease. (Some of them even believe that dinosaurs were on Noah's Ark, which means they lived alongside humans.) Expecting them to understand the meaning of a real threat may be a bit beyond their capability.
Everyone should just pat these "thought leaders" on the head and say "that's nice" whenever they start screeching about the next wave of scary monsters coming to kill us all in our beds. They don't know what they're talking about.
There may be monsters coming to kill us. But we can't see them with the naked eye. And they aren't making YouTube videos.