72° Good Afternoon
72° Good Afternoon
OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Dobie: Ebola and the flip side of freedom

A woman and girl wear protective masks Tuesday,

A woman and girl wear protective masks Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, before they enter Hospital Fundacion Alcorcon, where a Spanish nurse tested positive for the Ebola virus, in Alcorcon, Spain near Madrid. Credit: Getty Images / Pablo Blazquez Dominguez

These are uneasy times.

Bewildering events gnaw at our sense of security.

A sick and pregnant 19-year-old in Liberia needs a cab ride to a hospital; a month later, two nurses in Dallas are diagnosed with Ebola. The slender thread of causality: a Good Samaritan in that taxi who later flew to Texas to see an old lover.

Two Americans are beheaded in the Middle East. Others among us decide to join in and go overseas -- to train, fight and, possibly, return to wreak havoc here.

A recent convert to Islam kills a soldier and shoots up Parliament in Canada -- Canada! -- our peaceful northern neighbor and a country without our history of gun violence.

It's all a bit incomprehensible. The randomness stokes our worries, and none of it is happening in a vacuum. We're beset by uncertainty.

It wasn't long ago that we watched hundreds of thousands of people lose jobs they knew, absolutely knew, were safe and secure and lasting. Until they weren't.

On Long Island, we've been buffeted by climate and weather in such rapid succession -- Irene, Sandy, the blizzard, the 13 inches of no-name rain -- it feels different from when Belle came. Or Gloria. Or Bob. We don't know when Mother Nature will call again, but we're sure she's going to call.

So anxiety is understandable. The world we knew seems to be morphing before our eyes. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called anxiety "the dizziness of freedom." And he's right. The core of our nation, our freedom, makes us vulnerable. People come and go here. And the world is smaller now. So a man in a Liberian cab flies to Dallas.

But anxiety unchecked becomes fear. And fear, as it builds, can give rise to demagogues and demagoguery. We can't give in to that.

Fear, prejudice and hysteria after Pearl Harbor led to the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans. Thousands of gays were shunned in the early days of the AIDS crisis. After Sept. 11, suspicion of peaceful Muslims, and physical attacks on some, were shameful.

You hear echoes of that hysteria in the bleating insistence that we ban travel from the three West African nations plagued by Ebola. Never mind that infectious-disease experts say that would only make it harder to discover and track suspected Ebola victims.

Like Dr. Craig Spencer, the Manhattan physician who returned from treating Ebola patients in Guinea and now has the virus. On Thursday, panic and paranoia raged across social media when news broke that he might -- might -- have Ebola. One person said she would stay inside her house forever. Another couldn't wait to get off the subway, get home and "scrub hands till they bleed." Others talked of leaving town. And a Pennsylvanian -- noting one of the stricken nurses had been in Ohio, the other was being treated in Maryland and Spencer was in New York City -- worried that her state was surrounded by Ebola.

All ignored the facts: that Ebola is hard to transmit, that Spencer was monitoring his health, that New York authorities learned from the early bungling in Texas and were following all protocols for treating the virus, and that American victims were recovering with no one else infected.

It was easier to panic.

As children, we fear the monsters under the bed. Now I fear our demons are within us.

The world is what it is. We have to deal with it, soberly. Anxiety might just be our new normal. And that's OK. As long as we don't succumb to -- and from -- it.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.