At the Edge of Hysteria

Halloween is coming, and everyone likes a good scare, but that means all the old movies on television that people idly watch at the end of a long day, often something they’ve watched many times before but remember fondly, will be the usual Hollywood horror movies, but probably not the classics from the thirties – Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi, or James Whale’s Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff, from the same year. The next year it was The Mummy with Boris Karloff, and King Kong (1933) was Adolf Hitler’s favorite movie. The Bride of Frankenstein was a hit in 1935, and four years later in was the Son of Frankenstein, but those films have now lost all their power. Only Mel Brooks could bring Frankenstein back to life, as a charming and iconic comedy. His all singing-and-dancing stage musical version of his Young Frankenstein is now on stage here in Los Angeles. It’s a revival and it’s a hoot. It lives!

Those horror movies from the thirties are quaint now. The terror has been drained away, and what we’ve been offered since has settled down into different tropes. Teenagers make stupid choices. No, that empty old house on that dark hill isn’t a good place to spend that dark and stormy night. There’s probably a nice enough motel just down the road, maybe a Holiday Inn Express. Some doors should not be opened. Some things are none of your business. But the bad choices mount, and much gore and a lot of slashing follows, and the more panicked the sweet young thing and her wide-eyed boyfriend become, the worse choices they make, until everyone’s dead. One can feel deep sympathy for their fate, or decide they were both really stupid. And by the way, don’t mock the hapless ugly girl in your high school, if she’s named Carrie. Actually, mocking the meek and weak is probably a bad idea in general. What’s the point?

There are no more mad scientists or intrepid explorers unleashing horror through their overreach, even if they are smart as hell. We’ve settled on stupid kids making bad choices, then even worse choices as they panic, and we eat it up, probably because that’s closer to our experience. Most of us aren’t smart as hell, and we know all about shared hysteria, leading to worse and worse choices, and then people die. Saddam Hussein had those weapons of mass destruction and we were all going to die unless we took care of him, which would take care of them. There was no solid proof that Saddam Hussein had those nasty weapons, there was no smoking gun, but we were told the smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. George Bush said so. We walked right into the haunted house on the hill, and then as things got really nasty, we made worse and worse choices – we tortured people, thinking that would make things better. We decided the Sunnis over there were expendable and a Shiite government would probably work out just fine, and now outraged Sunnis have formed ISIS and the whole region is falling apart. We shouldn’t have opened that door. We’re still in that horror film where everyone dies.

Hollywood was onto something. One stupid choice leads to another, and then another, and pretty soon people are dying left and right. Hollywood just packaged this as something we could watch from a safe distance, for a bit of vicarious thrill, but they knew we all know all about this all too well. That could be us. That is us. Maybe George Bush stoked mass hysteria to get the war he wanted, not that boring war in Afghanistan, or maybe we caught Dick Cheney’s all-consuming hysteria and belligerent paranoia, but we panicked. The American public knew this war was necessary, except for those Americans who kept saying we shouldn’t do something stupid, and the French. One really bad choice can lead to further even worse choices, which always leads to very bad things happening, just like in the slasher movies. Life imitates art, or the other way around. Hillary Clinton and many others mocked Obama for having a foreign policy that he admitted came down to one simple principle, don’t do stupid stuff, but there’s something to be said for that.

That’s of course what the nerd in the horror movie always says. Don’t do that, whatever it is. Think things through. Use your head, not your fears – and the worst thing to do is panic. If you panic you’ll make even worse choices, and panic is catching. Soon everyone will be making stupid choices – but no one listens to the nerd. The horror begins.

This happens a lot, and we seem to be at the same point again with Ebola, where the nerds are trying to get everyone calmed down and sensible, and this is getting worrisome:

As health officials scramble to explain how two nurses in Dallas became infected with Ebola, psychologists are increasingly concerned about another kind of contagion, whose symptoms range from heightened anxiety to avoidance of public places to full-blown hysteria.

So far, emergency rooms have not been overwhelmed with people afraid that they have caught the Ebola virus, and no one is hiding in the basement and hoarding food. But there is little doubt that the events of the past week have left the public increasingly worried, particularly the admission by Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that the initial response to the first Ebola case diagnosed in the United States was inadequate.

On Wednesday, the CDC offered up the latest piece of bad news, announcing that a second infected nurse in Dallas had flown back from Cleveland a day before developing symptoms. Even before the announcement, two-thirds of the respondents to a Washington Post-ABC News poll said they were concerned about a widespread epidemic of Ebola in this country.

That’s not going to happen:

The risk of Ebola infection remains vanishingly small in this country. The virus is not airborne, not able to travel in the way that, say, measles or the SARS virus can. Close contact with a patient is required for transmission. Just one death from Ebola has occurred here, and medical care is light-years from that available in West Africa, where more than 4,400 people have died in the latest outbreak.

By contrast, in some years, the flu kills more than 30,000 people in the United States. Yet this causes little anxiety: Millions of people who could benefit from a flu shot do not get one.

One can be logical about this, but we’re too far into the horror movie for that:

Experts who study public psychology say the next few weeks will be crucial to containing mounting anxiety. “Officials will have to be very, very careful,” said Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research, a nonprofit that studies public health and perceptions of threat. “Once trust starts to erode, the next time they tell you not to worry – you worry.”

Mass hysteria follows, not that we’ll invade Iraq again – but we might. As for Ebola, we’ve been here before:

Experts said the most recent precedent of the Ebola risk, psychologically speaking, is the anthrax scare that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. In the weeks after an unknown assailant sent deadly envelopes with powdered anthrax spores to public officials, people across the country were seized by anxiety.

Some duct-taped windows and stayed away from work. In pockets of the country – Tennessee, Maryland and Washington – people reported physical symptoms like headaches, nausea and faintness. Ultimately they were determined to be the result of hysteria.

“I was in college then, and I remember they evacuated the business school building because someone saw white powder in the cafeteria,” said Andrew Noymer, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. The powder turned out to be artificial sweetener.

Expect that sort of thing now:

Psychologists have known for years that people judge risk based on a sophisticated balance of emotion and deduction. Often the former trumps the latter.

Instinctual reactions are quick and automatic, useful in times when the facts are not known or there is not enough time to process what little is known. Analytical reasoning is much slower and much harder; if we relied on analysis alone, decisions about risk would paralyze us.

Sure, but the risks are known here, not that they matter, as David Ignatius explains:

You could feel a shiver of panic coursing through the American body politic this week as the country struggled with a metastatic set of crises: the spread of the Ebola virus, the surge of Islamic State terrorists and the buckling global economy. Listening to the news, many Americans must have felt … that the protection layer had been breached.

President Obama tried to speak calmly to a rattled nation on Wednesday, describing how he had kissed and embraced nurses at Emory University Hospital who had treated Ebola patients safely. Don’t panic, was the unspoken message. It’s safe. Listening to the president, you couldn’t help but wonder if he was straining to keep a polarized, fearful country from losing its cool.

That’s a tall order:

Panic is a natural human response to danger, but it’s one that severely compounds the risk. Frightened people want to protect themselves, sometimes without thinking about others. Often, they get angry and want to find someone to blame for catastrophe. Inevitably, they spread information without checking whether it’s true.

That’s how we ended up in Iraq, and as then, Ignatius sees the press as an issue:

My own business, the news media, has a peculiar responsibility in times like these. We have to deliver information quickly and reliably, and also hold officials accountable for their performance — all without unnecessarily frightening people or contributing to the kind of hysteria that makes public-health measures more difficult. This role is harder in an unfiltered, Internet-driven media world, where careful reporting can look to some people like suppression of information.

There’s no winning. The hysteria is here, although an odd hero emerged:

Fox News’ Shepard Smith railed against the media’s Ebola hysteria on Wednesday.

“You should have no concerns about Ebola at all. None. I promise,” stated Smith. He went on to tell viewers, “Do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and the television or read the fear-provoking words online. The people who say and write hysterical things are being very irresponsible.”

He explained: “We do not have an outbreak of Ebola in the United States. Nowhere. We do have two healthcare workers who contracted the disease from a dying man. They are isolated. There is no information to suggest that the virus has spread to anyone in the general population in America. Not one person in the general population in the United States.”

This was unusual on Fox News, where viewers are told we’re all going to die if Obama is not stopped, but this was even more unusual:

“With midterm elections coming, the party in charge needs to appear to be effectively leading. The party out of power needs to show that there is a lack of leadership,” said Smith.

Smith stressed, “I report to you with certainty this afternoon that being afraid at all is the wrong thing to do.” He called media-stoked Ebola panic “counterproductive”, saying that it “lacks basis in fact or reason.” …

“Someday there may be a real panic. Someday, something may start spreading that they can’t control. And then, do you know what we’re gonna have to do? We’re gonna have to relax and listen to leaders. We’re not gonna panic when we’re supposed to and we’re certainly not gonna panic now. We have to stop it.”

Then there was this:

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh complained on Thursday about Fox News host Shepard Smith’s commentary calling for news outlets to cover the burgeoning concerns about Ebola in the U.S. more responsibly.

“Shep Smith was crying so much during his reporting from New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, his mascara was running,” Limbaugh groused.

Smith did report the Bush folks had messed up in their response to Katrina, and folks died. Limbaugh seems to think the right folks died, as they should have, but Limbaugh is not alone:

According to the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, it is because Smith is a gay “card-carrying liberal” who is seeking to provide cover for President Obama because Obama “supports the homosexual agenda.”

“Shepard Smith is a card-carrying liberal,” Fischer explained. “He has been outed as an active homosexual, so he’s down with the entire homosexual agenda. People think he’s on Fox so he’s conservative. Anything but.”

“Why would he want to support President Obama?” Fischer asked, before playing Smith’s segment on the Ebola panic. “Because President Obama supports the homosexual agenda.”

Bryan Fischer knows sentence fragments are powerful, and he knows that Smith is gay, even if that matter is far from clear – and he knows there’s reason to panic. Jonathan Last at the Weekly Standard says there are Six Reasons to Panic:

Start with what we know, and don’t know, about the virus. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other government agencies claim that contracting Ebola is relatively difficult because the virus is only transmittable by direct contact with bodily fluids from an infected person who has become symptomatic – which means that, in theory, you can’t get Ebola by riding in the elevator with someone who is carrying the virus, because Ebola is not airborne.

This sounds reassuring. Except that it might not be true.

Viruses mutate. This one will mutate. One of those mutations could make it airborne, maybe. Panic is appropriate, and the “general infection rates are terrifying too” as lots of people got Ebola, maybe not here, but lots of people. Think about that, and think about this:

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? 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. We take drastic precautions all the time, if the potential losses are serious enough, so long as officials are paying attention to the threat.

We should obviously shut down travel from these places, but one can catch a flight from Liberia to Lisbon, and then one to Lima, and then one to Miami, and then one to DC – so maybe we need to shut down all air travel. That seems to be the implication here, and this goes on and on. The Africans have been useless containing this over there, and this will surely get worse everywhere, and there’s this – “We have arrived at a moment with our elite institutions where it is impossible to distinguish incompetence from willful misdirection.”

Ah, now we know we can trust no one who says they know what they’re talking about. Obama could be lying through his teeth, and no one would trust him even if he was telling the truth. It’s the same for every doctor and scientist. We’re all on our own. That’s the final reason to panic.

One should remember that William Kristol’s Week Standard a dozen years ago was the place to go for all the arguments for why we had to go to war in Iraq, right now. It was Panic Central. Kristol’s staff provided all the turns of phrase Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rice would work into their press conferences and speeches. It was the neoconservative service bureau, and it doesn’t seem to have changed much.

Palm Waldman sees it this way:

I don’t know if Ebola is actually going to take Republicans to victory this fall, but it’s becoming obvious that they are super-psyched about it. Put a scary disease together with a new terrorist organization and the ever-present threat of undocumented immigrants sneaking over the border, and you’ve got yourself a putrid stew of fear-mongering, irrationality, conspiracy theories, and good old-fashioned Obama-hatred that they’re luxuriating in like it was a warm bath on a cold night.

It isn’t just coming from the nuttier corners of the right where you might expect it. … One candidate after another is incorporating the issue into their campaign. Scott Brown warns of people with Ebola walking across the border. Thom Tillis agrees: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got an Ebola outbreak – we have bad actors that can come across the border. We need to seal the border and secure it.” “We have to secure the border. That is the first thing,” says Pat Roberts, “And in addition, with Ebola, ISIS, whoever comes across the border, the 167,000 illegals who are convicted felons, that shows you we have to secure the border and we cannot support amnesty.” Because really, what happens if you gave legal status to that guy shingling your roof, and the next thing you know he’s a battle-hardened terrorist from the ISIS Ebola brigade who was sent here to vomit on your family’s pizza? That’s your hope and change right there.

The Weekly Standard has done its job well, for the team:

Even if most people aren’t whipped up into quite the frenzy of terror Republicans hope, I suspect that there will be just enough who are to carry the GOP across the finish line in November. When people are afraid, they’re more likely to vote Republican, so it’s in Republicans’ interest to make them afraid. And you couldn’t come up with a better vehicle for creating that fear than a deadly disease coming from countries full of dark-skinned foreigners. So what if only two Americans, both health care workers caring for a dying man, have actually caught it? You don’t need facts to feed the fear. And they only need two and a half more weeks.

It’s a plan, but Andy Borowitz imagines how it could backfire:

There is a deep-seated fear among some Americans that an Ebola outbreak could make the country turn to science.

In interviews conducted across the nation, leading anti-science activists expressed their concern that the American people, wracked with anxiety over the possible spread of the virus, might desperately look to science to save the day.

“It’s a very human reaction,” said Harland Dorrinson, a prominent anti-science activist from Springfield, Missouri. “If you put them under enough stress, perfectly rational people will panic and start believing in science.”

Additionally, he worries about a “slippery slope” situation, “in which a belief in science leads to a belief in math, which in turn fosters a dangerous dependence on facts.”

That’s a bit fanciful. People who panic never start believing in science, and they certainly don’t suddenly develop a dependence on facts. They open that door that’s there no real reason to open, and the monster jumps out. Everyone has seen the movie. Panic and hysteria follow, which leads to more panic and hysteria. People die. It’s great fun, in the movies.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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