Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fear itself

When the English Channel tunnel was nearing completion in the early 1990's, a lot of hysterical opposition developed among the British public. One fear in particular was the spread of rabies, a disease that had been eradicated in the UK, but that people were saying could conceivably spread again if rabid French animals now had a point of access through the tunnel. So a lot of elaborate safety measures were constructed just to reassure the fearful British that infected animals would not have an easy time using this new crossing. In time, these fears dissipated, and some of these safety features, like electric anti-rabies fences, have been abandoned.

What was really going on, of course, was a British fear of loss of their protected island status. Britain's physical and psychological separation by water from the European continent, which may have spared the country from invasion during the two World Wars (although it did not protect them from the Norman conquest), gives the British a feeling of security they are understandably reluctant to lose. This feeling of security sometimes manifests itself in irrational fears of contagion from other parts of the world, and a desire not to taint the pristine British countryside with whatever filth might be brought over from Europe and elsewhere.

And now we have an outbreak of Ebola, and in response a hysterical American reaction in some quarters that may emanate from the same psychological sources. Not just a narrow channel separates us from the old world, but the world's two largest oceans. These oceans have never fully protected us from invasion--way back in 1812 the British managed to burn down much of our capital city--but have spared us from a lot of the indignities that people in more contiguous countries have to suffer. As a result, Americans have a low tolerance for foreign invaders of any sort. We prefer to fight only wars of choice. We feel we are entitled to a larger margin of safety that people in other countries might expect, and we take extraordinary measures to keep our population safe.

It's a selective kind of safety we want to maintain, however. We don't seem motivated to do much about the more than 30,000 annually killed by traffic fatalities. Most of us accept that almost the same number are killed annually by guns, whether homicides, suicides or accidents. It doesn't seem to bother us that our risk intolerant nation ranks about 34th in infant mortality rates, lower than Cuba. The flu might be killing thousands of Americans every year, but most of us don't even take the trouble to get a flu shot. These are familiar, American sources of death. They are acceptable.

It's the exotic African sorts of death that are making some of us hysterical. Crashing the stock market, causing all sorts of paranoia, prompting calls for flight restrictions and other safety measures. Perhaps the same sorts of fears that many of the British felt when their island became physically connected to the rest of the world. It's not that I take Ebola lightly. Ebola is a scary disease. For the sake of argument, I'll concede it's probably way worse than rabies (though rabies is also a pretty scary disease). You should try to avoid exposing yourself to either Ebola or rabies. But every rational person who has looked at the facts has concluded that the chances of any significant outbreak of this disease in the US are minimal. And when the current global outbreak eventually subsides, our fears will finally diminish, and we might have to accept the fact that we are, for better or worse, connected to the rest of the world, and that we have to live with some level of risk from both familiar and unfamiliar sources.

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