Make no mistake about it: Ebola is a nasty bug. With its cinematically awful symptoms in the late stages of some cases, it's seemingly tailor-made to scare the shit out of people. That's exactly the problem. As legitimate a medical danger as Ebola poses, diseases tend to breed fear-induced reactions that are less likely to improve public safety than to pose threats to people's liberty.
The classic example is the Spanish Flu, which raced around the globe at the close of World War I. The bug gained its name not from its source, but because Spain wasn't a belligerent, and maintained a free press unburdened by wartime censorship. Spanish newspapers reported on the spreading pandemic, while authorities in other countries were afraid to permit such coverage. Spain was rewarded by lending its name to an unpleasant chapter in medical history.
But restrictions went well beyond censorship. In Phoenix, Arizona, police shot dogs and arrested people who ventured outside without wearing gauze masks. Both measures were ineffective (dogs didn't carry the disease and viruses pass right through gauze), rendering the results unjust for the unmasked and tragic for the city's canine population.
Around the world, Spanish Flu killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. Many of the dead were doctors and nurses, while others decided the risk wasn't worth what help they could render. Faced with a shortage, officials weren't afraid to conscript medical personnel into service. In Buffalo, New York, even former nurses who had retired from the profession were ordered to report for duty—by what authority is anybody's guess.
While it's still spreading, Ebola isn't the Spanish Flu. It's killed over 4,000 people so far (that we know of), and will kill more before it's done. But those deaths have mostly been in impoverished countries without modern medical care or resources. Knowledge of how disease works has advanced since 1918, and so has our ability (despite major missteps in Dallas and Spain) to care for people afflicted with contagious diseases. The U.S. and other developed countries will probably see more cases, but nothing that's likely to rival the thousands of people who die in this country from regular old influenza every year.
But if medical science and practices have changed since 1918, the human brain has not. Show us pictures of somebody bleeding from the eyes and drip out stories about newly infected patients, and the urge to do the equivalent of shooting every dog in Phoenix is hard to resist.
Travel bans are among the lousy proposals that have already surfaced—limits on getting from Point A to Point B not just for tourists and business people, but for private aid workers who might actually limit the impact and spread of disease.
Some border warriors fret that illegals will stagger across the southwestern desert with a lethal dose of Ebola virus in their baggage, and so are putting a fresh gloss on their usual immigration-control proposals.
Meanwhile, politicians on the other side of the aisle see Ebola as the logical end result of failing to placate the bureacracy gods with sufficient sacrifices of tax dollars.
To be honest, it could all be a lot worse. In the frenzy of panic over potential bioterrorism post-9/11, many states adopted part or all of the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, written by Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of law and public health at universities including Georgetown and Johns Hopkins. Gostin argued that "Although security and liberty sometimes are harmonious, more often than not they collide." He added, "The central inquiry, then, is not whether government should have the power to act…Rather, the proper inquiry is under what circumstances power can be exercised."
The resulting legislation, the American Civil Liberties Union noted at the time, "doesn't adequately protect citizens against the misuse of the tremendous powers that it would grant in an emergency."
Nobody has yet proposed dusting off that fear-fueled legislation. But with the whiff of cold sweat in the air, it's all the more reason to fear panic more than a virus.