Ebola On A Plane, And In The U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced that a person has brought the Ebola virus into the United States on a commercial airplane flight.  The man, who was not exhibiting symptoms of the virus at the time, landed in Dallas on September 20.  He is being treated at a Dallas hospital, and in the meantime the CDC is sending a team to Dallas to try to figure out who else may have been infected.

How big of a deal is this news?  That’s not clear — but it certainly would be better if it hadn’t happened.  According to the CDC website, Ebola is transmitted by coming into contact with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who is infected with the disease, or with the clothing or other items that have come into contact with those substances.  The website actually addresses what the CDC would do under these circumstances:  “If a traveler is infectious or exhibiting symptoms during or after a flight, CDC will conduct an investigation of exposed travelers and work with the airline, federal partners, and state and local health departments to notify them and take any necessary public health action.”  The website doesn’t specify what the “necessary public health action” might be.

For those of us who have to travel as part of their jobs, this news is somewhat unnerving.  Airports and airplanes are the great crossroads of the modern world, where your path might intersect for a few seconds with travelers from faraway lands while you wait to board a plane or go through security or get some crappy grub at a fast-food outlet.  In a modern airport, you could be sneezed upon by people from just about anywhere, or unknowingly sit in a seat that minutes ago was vacated by a complete stranger whose health condition is absolutely unknown.  How many people were transported in the plane that brought the infected man to this country before anyone became aware this issue existed?  How do we know where the infected man sat, or whether he used the bathroom?

We’re probably not to the point where people will be traveling in hazmat suits, but don’t be surprised if you see an outbreak of those mouth and nose masks the next time you take a commercial airline flight.

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When Is A Beheading An Act Of Terrorism?

Last week, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, a woman working at a food distribution center was beheaded by a former co-worker.  Witnesses said that the killer had been trying to convert other employees to Islam, and his Facebook page included a photo of Osama bin Laden and a picture of a beheading.

And now the media is engaged in a debate:  should the killing be described as an act of terrorism, or as the deranged action of a disturbed guy who just went “postal” after his firing?  An interesting piece in the Christian Science Monitor poses that question and wonders just how terrorism should be defined.  Is premeditation required?  Does a terrorist act have to be part of achieving some larger terrorist goal?

In some respects, this seems like a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  After all, it’s not as if all terrorist acts are carefully calibrated to achieve some larger and rational geopolitical objective.  The Boston Marathon bombings, for example, weren’t designed to take out American leaders or discourage American actions in some faraway land, they were simply designed to terrify random people — which seems like a pretty good definition of terrorism to me.

By that definition, a beheading of an innocent former co-worker by an Islamic man who has tried to convert co-workers and apparently follows the teachings of terrorists falls comfortably within the ambit of terrorism.  The depredations of ISIS and other Islamic terrorists have made beheadings — as opposed to other methods of killing — a form of terrorist political statement, and I don’t think it’s far-fetched to conclude that the Oklahoma City killer chose his approach with that understanding in mind.

If we can’t recognize terrorism for what it is, how can we hope to defeat it?