The Four Kinds of Political Ebola Panic

Ebola-carrying terrorists, martial law, and the other theories causing people to lose their minds.
Photograph by Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

Buzzfeed's unstoppable Andrew Kaczynski has found video of South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson – who is still best known, I guess, for shouting "you lie!" during a presidential address to Congress five years ago – speculating about how terrorists could use Ebola to attack the United States. Not that they'd bottle it up and toss it over, or anything so simple. Let Wilson explain:

We had people who, I’ll repeat it, the creed of Hamas: We value death more than you value life. What? That’s their creed. Okay, well, part of their creed would be to bring persons who have Ebola into our country. It would promote their creed. And all this could be avoided by sealing the border, thoroughly. C’mon, this is the 21st century.

It's superficially easy to write this off as a case of "Republican Congressman Says," of a safe-seat red-stater saying something silly but uncommon. Wilson isn't alone. Jonathan Last, the wonkish Weekly Standard columnist, published a piece yesterday that ran through the "reasons to panic" about the devastation that Ebola could wreak. 

"What’s to stop a jihadist from going to Liberia, getting himself infected, and then flying to New York and riding the subway until he keels over?" asked Last. "This is just the biological warfare version of a suicide bomb. Can you imagine the consequences if someone with Ebola vomited in a New York City subway car? A flight from Roberts International in Monrovia to JFK in New York is less than $2,000, meaning that the planning and infrastructure needed for such an attack is relatively trivial. This scenario may be highly unlikely. But so were the September 11 attacks and the Richard Reid attempted shoe bombing, both of which resulted in the creation of a permanent security apparatus around airports."

Both Last and Wilson followed on the remarks of Capt. Al Shimkus, Ret., a professor at the U.S. Naval War College who told Forbes that "in the context of terrorist activity, it doesn’t take much sophistication to go to that next step to use a human being as a carrier." True, Shimkus also told Forbes that America's infrastructure is equipped to prevent an epidemic; true, there are significantly easier ways for terrorists to kill Americans, or instill panic here, than to buy some jihadists a Baghdad-Monrovia-NYC junket and hope that a country currently spit-taking whenever someone coughs on a plane notices what they're doing.

The Ebola panic has undergone a mutation all its own. There are at least four thriving paranoias about the virus and the America response to it, and they're coming largely from the right, as the left frets that this crisis will convince some wavering voters to cast desperate votes for Republicans.

1. Obama could impose martial law.

Ever since President Obama signed the National Defense Resource Preparedness executive order, in 2012, there's been easily Googled fodder for anyone who fears the end of democracy. Obama approved an order that basically updated the aging guidelines for a hypothetical disaster scenario; most conservatives who've stumbled upon this have debunked the worst theories about it. Most, but not all.

"[Obama] talks about using emergency powers to take over control of the economy and everything," said retiring Representative Steve Stockman of Texas in an interview this month. "Of course our friends at Snopes say it’s false, then you read about it and it turns out to be true." Sure enough, there is a document that explains how the government could compel labor and ration food in a crisis, though it raises the question: Why wouldn't Obama just do that and cancel a midterm before his party can lose it?

2. Obama's African connection could be making him go soft. 

Dinesh D'Souza's 2011 book, The Roots of Obama's Rage, posited that America had given the White House to an essentially alien politician whose philosophy evolved out of his late father's anti-colonialism. When Obama ordered troops to West Africa, and when he started to reject the idea of a travel ban from the region, new life was breathed into the theory that the president simply didn't care about white continents.

"In his mind, if only unconsciously, he's thinking, 'Really?'" theorized psychologist and Fox News sofa-filler Keith Ablow, redundantly. "'We're going to prevent folks suffering with illnesses from coming across the border flying into our airports when we have visited a plague of colonialism that has devastated much of the world, on the world? What is the fairness in that?'"

A more succinct version of the theory came from media bias-hunter Bernie Goldberg:


3. Terrorists could use Ebola-infected jihadists as a weapon.

See above.

4. Politicians are lying because there's an election soon. 

There's nothing terribly speculative or wild about this. President Obama pronounced it "unlikely" that there could be an Ebola outbreak within the United States. Then a Liberian man hopped a plane, and – well, you know. As my colleagues have been reporting, Republicans in tough races have been coming out for restrictions on travel from west Africa, begging the question of why the administration doesn't. There is a core worry here that's more potent than the more wild speculations. What if nothing particularly new or evil is underway -- what if the government is simply incompetent?

"We are told that a good portion of the country doesn’t believe that the federal government will deal proficiently with an unpredictable threat," wrote Charles Cooke on Friday in National Review. "Well, where on Earth could they have got that idea?"

Slowly but inevitably, the Republicans calling for travel bans are being heard out by Democrats. North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan, who spent a few of the last news cycles deflecting attacks on her failure to attend a Senate hearing about (in part) the Islamic State and her family's financial benefit from the 2009 stimulus bill, has now joined the travel ban conga line. "I have said for weeks that travel restrictions should be one part of a broad strategy to prevent Ebola from spreading in the U.S. and fighting it in Africa," Hagan said.

Democrats can't do anything about the conservatives who think Obama wants an Ebola crisis, or the Republicans who ask whether terrorists will haul their Ebola-ravaged bodies over the border and look for the nearest playground to die in. They don't sweat this. They worry about the panic reaching people who were, until this crisis, inclined to trust the government and believe what they read.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.