Let's face it: Ebola is a terrifying disease. One minute you have what could be flu symptoms, the next your insides are melting and there's a very high probability that you will die. It's a plague scary enough to be one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or to have been invented by Stephen King.
So it's understandable that people would freak out when, for the first time, it shows up on America's shores. The fact that the people at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don't seem to be entirely on top of things makes it scarier. But the Ebola panic is also being stoked by media hype -- not only for sensationalism but also to score political points.
It should be noted that the fear-mongering and finger-pointing have happened on both sides of the aisle. Campaign ads by some Democrats in congressional races have tried to use the Ebola scare against Republicans by blaming them for budget cuts to the CDC. But some of the rhetoric from the right, where many argue that President Barack Obama is not taking sufficient measures against the epidemic -- such as sealing the borders and banning flights from Africa -- has added a disturbing element of paranoia to the mix, with even more disturbing racial overtones.
Last week while appearing on a Fox News radio show, one Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and Fox News contributor, went so far as to say that Obama is failing to protect America from Ebola because he believes -- "if only unconsciously" -- that America deserves to suffer from it. According to Ablow, the president thinks that "we have visited a plague of colonialism that has devastated much of the world" and should not be able to use our wealth to insulate ourselves from its ills.
And it gets worse: According to Ablow, Obama is not banning flights from Africa because "his affinities, his affiliations are with them, not us" and "he's their leader."
Sadly, this ugliness is spreading. One Twitter user who calls herself a Christian has circulated a "joke" that compares Obama with Ebola as "a plague upon the U.S. with origins in Africa."
To be sure, there has also been a smattering of absurdity in the left-wing media, such as claims that all fears of Ebola are rooted in racial hatred. But on this occasion, the right wins the toxic politics sweepstakes. Whether this disgraceful rhetoric is motivated by actual racial prejudice or an anything-goes approach to political warfare, responsible conservatives need to distance themselves from it, and fast. Otherwise, they're not in a position to complain when opposition to Obama is smeared as racist.
The good news is that, as far as Ebola is concerned, the latest medical news is actually good. Nigeria has apparently managed to stop the epidemic in its tracks. Here in the United States, it seems that none of the four people who shared an apartment with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian Ebola patient who died in Dallas, have come down with the disease. Neither have the three people who were in close contact with Nancy Writebol, the missionary who contracted Ebola in Liberia and survived after successful treatment in Atlanta. While the fact that two nurses at the hospital where Duncan died have become infected is deeply troubling, it suggests, more than anything else, unpardonable sloppiness at that particular hospital (which initially sent Duncan home).
From all indications, the assurances that Ebola is extraordinarily difficult to catch remain true. One can only hope that the same is true of Ebola panic.
As for Dr. Keith Ablow, I can only say: Psychiatrist, heal thyself.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.