A depiction of a draft riot in New York City during the Civil War. Image via Wikimedia Commons
I’m not sure when Americans got scared. Maybe the indigenous tribes of the plains spent evenings huddled in their teepees telling stories of twisted night creatures, maybe the nomads who trekked across that bridge from Russia to Alaska were running away from something. Whatever the case, by the time the white people showed up from across the sea and started putting women on trial for witchcraft and convincing themselves the natives were conspiring with Satan, fear was firmly established as the ruler of the continent and it hasn’t left since. The national anthem, like most of what you learn in elementary school, is mostly lies—forget the brave and the free, we’re the land of the terrorized, the home of the perpetually panicked.
That’s a sweeping, simplistic generalization, but it’s hard to find another explanation for what New Jersey and New York governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo did over the weekend in response to New York City’s first Ebola case. First they announced that health-care workers returning from the West African countries affected by the deadly disease would be placed in quarantine for 21 days, a policy they implemented apparently without consulting the White House. The first person to be affected by this was nurse Kaci Hickox, who was detained on Friday after landing in New Jersey and described her confusing, bizarre experience dealing with the authorities in an account for the Dallas Morning News:
I am scared about how health care workers will be treated at airports when they declare that they have been fighting Ebola in West Africa. I am scared that, like me, they will arrive and see a frenzy of disorganization, fear and, most frightening, quarantine.
I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal. Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?
By Sunday night, after suffering slings and arrows of deserved criticism, Cuomo and Christie were backtracking as only experienced politicians can. The New York governor said that medical workers like Hickox would be allowed to quarantine themselves in their homes and would be compensated by the government for any income they lost as a result of three weeks of house arrest, while also praising people who volunteered to help the sick and needy in West Africa for their “valor” and “compassion.”
Ebola isn’t contagious unless the sufferer is exhibiting symptoms; there have only been four cases of the disease on US soil. (A five-year-old boy whose family just returned from Guinea is now being tested in New York.) Mandatory quarantines aren’t backed up by science, the head of the Washington, DC, Department of Health told the Washington Post. President Obama has also urged people to stop panicking and pressured states to stop implementing forced quarantines, but that hasn’t stopped Connecticut, Illinois, and Florida from following New York and New Jersey’s lead on isolating medical workers, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are recommending a quarantine of all troops who return from affected West African countries. No Pentagon personnel are going to be treating anyone with Ebola, and medical experts aren’t endorsing that policy, but those kinds of details don’t matter—fear is in charge now, and fear gets what it wants.
If Ebola didn’t exist, of course, Americans would find something else to churn them into a panic. That’s not a charitable view, but what else can you conclude about a country where there’s a perpetual ammo shortage fueled by rumors the government is buying bullets en masse? Where politicians routinely drum up fear about fundamentalists half a world away as if they were about to conquer Europe? Where the government has instituted invasive and annoying airport security measures just to reassure skittish travelers? Where that same government routinely gathers up as much information as it possibly can about everyone and won’t reveal what or why it’s doing that unless details about its intelligence gathering are leaked to the press? Where people are avoiding getting their kids vaccinated because they don't trust science? Where not too long ago protesters around the country demonstrated against the mere existence of mosques?
Some fear is reasonable, of course, even healthy. If you share a bowling alley with someone who has Ebola, for instance, you might be excused for feeling a little skeeved, however irrational that is. At various times and places throughout history, it was completely understandable to feel like your existence was hanging on by a not particularly robust thread—think of people in African nations beset by random violence and civil wars, or bygone Polynesian chiefdoms where death was only a club-wielding raiding party away, or plague-era European towns where they wheeled corpses down the feces- and rat-strewn streets. But the West in general and America in particular are almost comically safe. The US is separated from its enemies by oceans and has the firepower to blow away any foe that could conceivably threaten it. Crime rates have been falling for a generation, there’s no imminent threat of revolution or coup, and you can count on mail to be delivered and stores to be stocked with a bounty of food and products unparalleled in human history.
There are things to worry about—climate change, say, or the continued widening of the wealth gap turning some neighborhoods permanently into slums—and we do worry about them, but we also worry about scenarios straight out of speculative fiction. A recent survey found that significant proportions of Americans were concerned about not just the rising oceans but economic collapse, mass civil unrest, a deadly epidemic, another world war, the planet running out of oil, even the biblical apocalypse. Basically, mention a potential crisis, no matter how remote, and Americans will titter in fear.
In most cases, worrying over something that is not likely to happen and that you can’t control anyway is merely counterproductive and a waste of time, but occasionally fear can lead to disasters. On a macro level, there was the invasion of Iraq, a war based on misplaced fears of Saddam Hussein’s terrible weapons; on a micro level you have Rwanda elementary school kids being kept out of class and Senegalese middle schoolers reportedly being beaten and called “Ebola.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s line about the only thing we have to fear being fear itself can sound like a platitude meant to soothe a jumpy stock market or a Zen-ish koan, depending on your mood. Or you can just take it as the truth—fear makes us do stupid things, and sometimes the authorities, acting on fear, spread yet more fear among the public and create a perpetual cycle of rage and panic.
This phenomenon isn’t new, nor is it particularly particular to America. But it’s hard not to get frustrated at the way politicians nurture fear by calling for draconian travel bans from West Africa, or the way cable news caters to the fearful with scary-looking poll questions. Our leaders and media institutions—the people who are supposed to be grown ups, in other words—are too often eager to indulge terror, to tell people that they should be afraid, that the basest parts of their animal brains surging with flight-or-fight neurotransmitters have the right idea.
There’s no policy prescription for making people less afraid, no War on Scardey Cats the government could realistically pursue. Short of putting a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy–esque “Don’t Panic” on every book cover and making it mandatory for newscasts to show calming images of people going about their business and basically being OK there’s not much to be done about our predilection toward fear. The only thing we can do is to make concerted efforts to individually and collectively calm the fuck down. No terror-fueled tweets about breaking news stories that only serve to spread misinformation. No demands for elected officials to “do something” about every microcrisis that crops up. We should be aware of our tendency to conjure up witches, evil plots, and superpowered terrorists, and squash these things when they appear in our minds.
We should know to be skeptical of headlines about “panics” and “epidemics,” and not be so easily manipulated into imagining worst-case scenarios. We should remind ourselves that the people who spread fear are either stupid, or they have some ulterior motive for doing so—and it’s them, not their bogeymen, that we should be worried about.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.