Searching For The Elusive Middle Ground

The battle against terrorism, and the question of how to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, illustrate once again how hard it is to find the common, middle ground in modern America.

A devastating event like the Paris attacks or the San Bernardino shootings occurs, and the respective sides retreat to their corners — which seem to be getting farther away from each other.  The group on one side insists that we should trust the government to deal with the issue, that the real problem isn’t ideology but the availability of guns, and that in any case we should be more focused on homegrown nuts and their violent antics.  In the corner we’ve got — well, people like Donald Trump, who argued yesterday that we should ban all Muslims from entering the United States until the government can “figure out what is going on.”

the-economist-no-middle-ground-small-65430It seems like there is a lot of middle ground between those positions, yet sometimes it is hard to find it and stake it out.  Social media, the demands of political fundraising and a 24-hour news cycle, and the full-time spin machines of the political parties all contribute to that reality.  Politicians who take hard-line views on either side find it easier to raise money and stay in the news, and politicians who voice more nuanced positions get relentlessly attacked by the hard-liners as soft or unprincipled.  Internet memes talk past each other without fairly characterizing, or engaging, the merits of differing viewpoints.  And the spinners distort opposing views and try to push them as far away as possible from that elusive middle ground.

Of course, all of those tactics and tropes don’t eliminate the middle ground, they just obscure it.  The fair-minded skeptic focused on practical realities can still find it in the murk.

So where is the middle ground here?  I think the middle ground flatly rejects Trump’s call for banning Muslims as appalling demagoguery that is anti-American down to its dark, rotten core, and inconsistent with the foundational principles of tolerance and religious freedom on which our country was built.  I think the middle ground recognizes that radical Islamic terrorism is a dangerous threat to our peace and security that needs to be addressed, that people who worry about it aren’t inevitably nutty racist xenophobes, and that we can’t hug it away or reasonably characterize it as less important than, say, global warming.  I think the middle ground thinks we don’t have to choose whether foreign terrorists are more dangerous than crazed Americans who shoot up schools or theaters or Planned Parenthood clinics, but that a country with our resources should actually be able to deal with both of those problems.  And I think the middle ground understands that reflexively depicting the person who doesn’t agree with you as an idiot, a wuss, or a knuckle-dragging throwback isn’t going to help us tackle these problems and that harsh language and caricatures usually just harden opposing views rather than persuade.

In some way, Donald Trump’s bombastic buffoonery might actually help us to find the middle ground; it’s encouraging that other Republican presidential candidates condemned his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.  But we can’t rely on Trump’s appeal to the lowest common denominator to define the national discourse.  We’ve got to find that middle ground, somewhere, and then move forward.

Vetting The Vetting

We’ve heard a lot about “vetting” Syrian refugees seeking entry into the United States over the last few weeks.  Many people portray the process as so thorough and onerous that fears that terrorists might slip through the cracks in the company of legitimate refugees are implausible.

9394208_gThe history of the San Bernardino shooters, however, should at least give some pause to those who confidently accept that our existing procedures can effectively screen out potential terrorists.  The female alleged shooter, Tashfeen Malik, who had lived in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, came to the United States on a “fiance Visa” after she and her husband to be, alleged fellow shooter Syed Farook, declared their intention to marry.  She had to meet with consular officials, fill out forms, give her fingerprints, and have her information run through databases at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.  After Malik was in the United States and she and Farook were married, she had to undergo additional background checks before she obtained her green card.

These procedures are different from those that would apply to refugees, which apparently are more “strict.”  Nevertheless, Malik made it through a significant vetting process — and ABC News has reported that the Pakistan address that she listed in her visa application doesn’t, in fact, exist.  If you were an employer deciding whether to hire a new employee and the candidate’s resume or application included false information, that would raise a red flag.  Why didn’t the vetting process in Malik’s case catch the fake address?   That apparent lapse doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence about the bullet-proof nature of our vetting process.

It’s always easy to question apparent security failures, after the fact — just look at the weird, red-flag-filled story of Lee Harvey Oswald in the years before the JFK assassination.  In this case, however, scrutinizing the procedures used for Tashfeen Malik is not cheap second-guessing, but an entirely rational response.  We know, from the unfortunate actions in San Bernardino and from the declarations of ISIS and other terrorist organizations, that radicalized people from the Middle East want to do us harm.  The procedures we are using to screen people who want to come to this country obviously have to take account of that fact — and if we aren’t sure that those procedures work, we need to do something about it.

Another Reason To Be Thankful For Your Mother

Here’s another reason to add to the infinite list of reasons to be thankful for your mother:  she didn’t drop you off at Grandma’s house before suiting up, declaring her allegiance to a terrorist group, and then heading off to conduct an inexplicable massacre of innocent people.

the-empty-crib-mourning-a-miscarriageThat is the most astonishing aspect of the apparent back story of the San Bernardino shooters: one of them was a new mother who allegedly dropped her child off at her mother-in-law’s house before heading out for a murderous rampage with her husband.

People used to refer to the “maternal instinct” — the notion that there was an innate impulse, possessed by every mother, to love and fiercely guard her children.  It’s an old-fashioned concept, and probably passe in modern times, but the San Bernardino attack certainly undercuts its presumed existence.  No one with “maternal instincts” could knowingly bring explosives and weaponry into the home where she was raising an infant and then callously drop off the kid before blazing away at strangers.

President Obama, and others, frequently respond to terrorist incidents by talking about our “shared values” — as if all of the people of the world had the same perspective on things.  Of course, we don’t all have “shared values”; that’s the problem.  San Bernardino puts the lie to that concept as well.  How can we reasonably speak of “shared values” if something as fundamental as a mother’s love can be overcome by a terrorist ideology?  If we can’t trust a mother to stick with her child . . . well, what can we trust?

About Accepting Those 65,000 Syrian Refugees . . . .

Details are still sketchy in the aftermath of the horrific Paris terrorist attacks, but it appears that at least one of the killers was part of the wave of Syrian refugees that has come to Europe in recent months.  The French Prime Minister says he believes the attacks were planned from Syria, and intelligence agencies are fearful that ISIS, the organization that is claiming credit for the Paris atrocities, has implanted terrorists among the flood of refugees.

At Saturday night’s Democratic candidate debate, Hillary Clinton restated her view that the United States should accept 65,000 refugees, far more than the 10,000 President Obama originally proposed.  Obama Administration officials have discussed accelerating the process of vetting refugees for admission to the U.S. and defended the idea of accepting Syrian refugees, arguing that the refugees have suffered through the horrors of war and that “we can’t just shut our doors to those people.”  Republicans, on the other hand, contend that the security risks of accepting the refugees is simply too great.

This is one of those issues where the heart and the head tug in different directions.  The heart takes seriously the Statue of Liberty’s pledge to welcome the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and wants to help the downtrodden whose lives have been destroyed by terrorism and war.  The head, on the other hand, recognizes that allowing thousands of refugees to come to America inevitably increases the risk that terrorists might be among their midst, ready to pursue Paris-like atrocities on American soil.

The key point, for me at least, is whether the United States really can perform effective screening of refugees.  In Europe, where hundreds of thousands of refugees have been accepted, the vetting procedures have been slapdash at best.  The Obama Administration and Mrs. Clinton say the United States can perform a more thorough and careful investigation before allowing refugees into the country — but I’m skeptical of that claim.

Background screening presupposes the possession of accurate background information.  When employers check the job history or criminal record of applicants, they use public records and established data sources.  Do we actually have access to similarly reliable information about purported refugees from a war-torn land that has never been a friend to the United States?  Are we going to accept a Syrian passport at face value?  Even if we could determine whether an individual is in fact a Syrian national, how do we confirm that they haven’t been radicalized by ISIS?  All of these seem to be insurmountable problems with any meaningful screening process — and if you are accepting tens of thousands of refugees, only a small fraction of screening failures could produce catastrophic results.

The deadly Paris attacks raise legitimate questions about the security risks presented by accepting Syrian refugees, and if we don’t at least consider those questions in establishing our own policy and procedures we have only ourselves to blame.  It is not xenophobia to require some assurance that we can make meaningful screening decisions about whether a particular person who claims refugee status is, or is not, an ISIS terrorist-in-waiting.  Until such assurance can be provided, the better policy may be to honor our humanitarian impulses by working to establish safe havens for refugees within Syria itself.

Carnage In Paris

Reports are still coming in, but the world has been shocked by another deadly terrorist attack.  This time it happened in Paris, where more than 100 people were killed in a coordinated series of shootings that targeted a sporting event, concert, and restaurant.

We’ll have to see what the investigation shows as to who planned the attacks — ISIS already is claiming responsibility — and what their motivation was, but the attacks show, once again, that the citizens of the western world must always be on guard.  Those of us who have enjoyed a trip to Paris can easily imagine that we might have been at the restaurant, or the concert, where the masked men armed with machine guns started indiscriminately shooting innocent people.  We think such horrors can’t happen again . . . and then they do.  We shake our heads at what seems to be senseless violence, but to the perpetrators such attacks obviously are not senseless.  They are carefully planned and designed to sow panic and give the terrorists the advantage.

At this point, with the identity of the assailants still not released and details sketchy, we don’t know the backgrounds of the shooters.  If they do, in fact, turn out to be Islamic extremists affiliated with ISIS, that fact will only feed into the anti-immigrant backlash that seems to be building in Europe in the wake of the decision by the EU to have member states accept large numbers of Syrian refugees.

The repercussions of such a finding are likely to be felt in America, too, and probably will mean that immigration will remain a huge political issue and that security will once again become a focus of discussion.  I think part of the mystifying, apparently enduring appeal of Donald Trump is that he talked about immigration when other candidates really weren’t — and although many people want to dismiss all of the voters concerned about immigration issues as racist xenophobes, I think that many are simply worried about the potential risks of an apparently porous southern border.  If we can’t stop the flood of people crossing into the country, what’s to prevent ISIS or al Qaeda militants from joining the tide?

In the meantime, our hearts will ache for the people of France and the awful loss and horror they have experienced.

Permanent Protest

  
When Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C. in the early ’80s, a “Ban the Bomb” protestor camped in Lafayette Square Park, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.  His protest area featured a number of hand-lettered signs about the perils of nuclear weapons that featured photos of the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In those days of the Reagan Administration, nuclear weapons were a big issue: some American communities were declaring themselves “nuclear-free zones,” as if municipal ordinances could repel nuclear warheads, and President Reagan was accused of being a dangerous war-mongerer.

Then the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and the United States and the Soviet Union talked about eliminating their nuclear stockpiles, and the worries about Mutually Assured Destruction and “duck and cover” seemed to be quaint issues that were behind us.

But, 35 years later, the “Ban the Bomb” protest is still there in Lafayette Park, with its little encampment and crude signage.  And the nuclear issue, unfortunately, is still with us, too — except now the concerns aren’t about the Soviets, but about Iran, and North Korea, and ISIS, and rogue terrorist groups using nuclear weapons to advance their inexplicable political and religious agendas.  Nuclear weapons are back on the front page, and the issue seems to have curdled and gotten worse, and more dangerous than ever.  

Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the protest area, though.  Maybe we should.

Let Us All Be Heroes

The story about the three Americans who stopped a terrorist on a European train is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dismal news period.  It reminds us that, in a world of big governments and big corporations, individuals who seize the initiative can still make a crucial difference.

The three Americans — one from the Air Force, one from the National Guard, and one a civilian — were middle school chums who were traveling on a train from Amsterdam to Paris when they saw an Islamic terrorist begin shooting.  The airman, Spencer Stone, rushed at the shooter, tackled him, and was slashed by a boxcutter before his friends Alec Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler joined him in subduing the shooter.  The authorities believe their courageous, selfless actions prevented another deadly terrorist incident, and the three Americans were decorated by a grateful French government.

I cannot help but wonder how I would react if I were put in such a situation and whether my instinct would be to duck and cover, or to act.  I’d like to think it would be the latter — with luck, we’ll never be put to that test — but it’s nice to know that there are still people out there who have that impulse.  We would like to think that, in the right circumstances, we could all be heroes.

Death To The Boston Bomber?

On Friday a jury concluded that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should receive the death penalty for his involvement in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Last month, the same jury found Tsarnaev guilty of planting bombs that killed three people and maimed and injured hundreds more, as well as the killing of an MIT police officer.  The jury then heard evidence about the appropriate punishment for his crimes and deliberated for three days before unanimously concluding that death is the appropriate sentence of Tsarnaev’s placement of a bomb that killed an 8-year-old boy, Martin Richard, and Lingzi Lu, a graduate student from China.  By all accounts, the jury took its job seriously and soberly and carefully considered Tsarnaev’s childhood and cultural background, as well as evidence that his older brother was the mastermind of the bombings, before deciding that the death penalty was appropriate.

Tsarnaev’s crimes were terrible and unforgivable.  They were terrorism in the truest sense of the word, because they were not targeted at any specific person.  Their only purpose was to kill and hurt people indiscriminately, harm the reputation of a venerable American institution, and cause the general populace to worry that they might be risking their lives whenever they attend or participate in a mass sporting event or rally.  There is simply no justification for the commission of such crimes.  Whatever his upbringing, anyone who can rationalize placing a bomb in a crowd and killing wholly innocent people is a bad man who deserves to be punished.

Nevertheless, I’m opposed to the death penalty for Tsarnaev, as I am in other cases.  I don’t think we need to show terrorists overseas how tough we are, and in any case I doubt that they pay much attention to the workings of the American justice system.  I also don’t think killing Tsarnaev is going to dissuade others from committing acts of domestic terrorism, just as the execution of Timothy McVey for the Oklahoma City bombing didn’t stop the Tsarnaev brothers from proceeding with their crimes.  A death sentence simply ensures that we will spend huge amounts of time and money on appeals and will be reminded of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his awful crimes every once in a while, when his case is reargued and reargued again in court.

I’d rather we just throw this evil man into prison and leave him to rot, alone and forgotten, for the rest of his miserable and misbegotten life.

Censorship And Safety

Who is responsible for pulling the film The Interview from its planned Christmas Day release in the face of threats from terrorist hackers?  Was Sony craven, as many have suggested, or was it the theater chain owners who triggered the decision to pull The Interview because of liability concerns, as Sony responds?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know this:  Totally removing a movie, or any other form of expression, from widespread public distribution because of threats is censorship and sets a terrible precedent.  Does anyone really dispute the conclusion that somewhere in Pyongyang or some other rathole the terrorist hackers are high-fiving over their success in this instance, and that terrorist groups elsewhere haven’t taken note of the new weapon that has now been added their arsenal?  What movie, book, play, or TV show is going to be the next target of this technique?

The Interview isn’t the kind of movie I would ever go to a theater to see, but that’s obviously not the point.  The next time it might be  controversial biography I’ve been eagerly anticipating, or the next installment of the Game of Thrones series because the terrorists disagree with how religion is depicted by George R. R. Martin. Regardless of the subject, a free society cannot tolerate a world in which terrorists dictate who gets to see, read, or consider what.

One other point: if I were an author, actor, or historian, I would be thinking long and hard about who brings my work to market and whether they have the courage to do it in the face of threats.  I don’t think I’d want to entrust my creative work product to a company, or a theater chain, that crumbled and caved in the face of threats.  Are actors, directors, and producers going to shy away from Sony projects?

Misreading Our Mood

We’re less than a month away from the election — the latest in a string of elections that liberals and conservatives alike want us to treat as the most important election in modern history! — and I wonder how well our political classes even understand the average voter.

A story in yesterday’s New York Times about how an increasingly unpopular President Obama has been “benched” by his party capsulized the issue for me.  The article says that the President hopes, once again, to “pivot” to the economy and give a series of speeches about jobs initiatives and a “clean energy economy,” but his advisers are frustrated because the American people are worried, instead, about a possible Ebola outbreak and the terrorist threat posed by ISIS.  One of the operatives said:  “When people are jumping a fence at the White House and Ebola is in Dallas it’s hard to get a message through.”

No kidding!

And therein lies the problem.  The political types dream of rolling out more wishful policy proposals in grand speeches; they treat real-world problems like Ebola, ISIS, and porous borders as irritants that serve only to distract from the more crucial policymaking process.  The American people, on the other hand, see Ebola, ISIS, and White House security as precisely what the federal government should focus on as its most important priorities.

Epidemics and terrorism are beyond the control of the Average American; they are the big, scary problems that only the government is equipped to handle.  When the big problems arise, we want to hear from clipped, hyper-competent people who have developed careful plans to tackle the problem — not expessions of regret that the deadly plague and the beheadings are preventing politicians from talking about the latest solar energy initiative.

The Times article plays into an important undercurrent in our society.  We know that the governmental types are eager to tell us what to eat, drink, and think.  They want us to accept their assurances that Ebola will never make it to our shores, and then when a man infected with Ebola somehow arrives in Dallas they expect us to believe new assurances that things are nevertheless under control.  Not surprisingly, such statements are greeted with increasing skepticism — and when articles indicate that the President and the politicos are straining at the leash to put Ebola and ISIS behind them and move on to debate about a “clean energy economy,” the skepticism grows, and grows, and grows.  In that context, why should we view statements that Ebola or ISIS are under control as anything other than a convenient effort to sweep the big, scary, problems under the rug so the policymaking games can be played?

It’s not unreasonable for us to want or demand a federal government that understands that the big, scary problems are its most important job, not some mere distraction.  How many voters will enter the voting booths next month with that thought in mind?

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?

Insecure About Homeland Security

The Washington Post has an interesting, and troubling, story about the problems at the Department of Homeland Security.  According to the article, the agency is faced with tremendously low morale, high employee turnover, and a toxic bureaucratic environment.

The DHS was created after 9/11 and was supposed to unite a host of separate agencies that had some security role.  Its constituent agencies include the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Coordinating the different cultures and practices of such diverse agencies would be a challenge, and the Post piece indicates that the DHS has made a hash of it, creating a highly bureaucratic environment that frustrates employees and managers.

A dysfunctional, overly bureaucratic federal agency — who could imagine such a thing?  It may be the norm, but in the case of the DHS the constant turnover, unfilled positions, and bureaucratic gamesmanship could easily have real world consequences.  The Post article notes, for example, that recent testing has shown that the blue-uniformed TSA employees at who operate all of those scanners are increasingly missing weapons or explosives being brought through security.  What is the point of spending billions for high-tech scanners at airports if the TSA employees can’t properly interpret the scanning data?  In the modern world where so many terrorist groups are looking to launch another deadly operation, we simply cannot afford security agencies who aren’t properly performing their jobs.

The TSA is only one example of a problem agency within the DHS.  Whether it is defense against cybersecurity attacks, or securing the border, or dealing with the influx of immigrant minors, the DHS is tasked with tough assignments and is widely perceived as botching them.  The plummeting morale at the DHS isn’t helping matters, either.  A survey performed last year showed that the DHS ranked dead last among large agencies.

The DHS has an important job.  With the constant threats made against America by the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda, you would think that effective leaders could generate energized agencies where employees understood the significance of their roles and had high morale because of the crucial nature of their work in protecting their families and friends from attack.  Instead, the DHS is a morass of infighting and leaden bureaucratic procedures that hinder effective performance.

The Post article paints an ugly picture, one that should make us all feel less secure about the Department of Homeland Security.

That Unseemly Campaign Mode

Kish and I watched President Obama’s speech about our response to the depravations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria last night.  I think we have to do something about those vicious Islamic terrorists, so I am glad the President has decided to take action.  As for his strategy — well, if it doesn’t work, we can try something else.  The main takeaway is that we’re going to act, once again, in an effort to lead the world to a better place.

The President struck a jarring note at the end of the speech, when he invoked both the 9/11 attack and the economic downturn of 2008 and argued that the United States “is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth.”  He added:

“Our technology companies and universities are unmatched. Our manufacturing and auto industries are thriving. Energy independence is closer than it’s been in decades. For all the work that remains, our businesses are in the longest uninterrupted stretch of job creation in our history. Despite all the divisions and discord within our democracy, I see the grit and determination and common goodness of the American people every single day, and that makes me more confident than ever about our country’s future.”

This snippet of happy-talk was dubious — Our universities are great when they are gouging students with outrageous tuitions and producing debt-crippled graduates?  Our auto industries are thriving when GM produces defective cars while living on federal support? — and obviously has nothing to do with ISIS or terrorism.  It came across as unseemly politicking as a mid-term election approaches and thereby detracted from the rest of the speech.  Perhaps the President doesn’t realize it, but when he is addressing national security and describing our strategy to defeat another bloody terrorist group and then veers into campaign mode, he presents himself as focused on internal politics and less than serious about the external mission he is announcing. It’s not a positive juxtaposition.

Today marks another anniversary of 9/11 and, as a result of the President’s speech last night, we will open another front in the long and difficult struggle against terrorism.  The memories of that black day 13 years ago remain raw and painful.  Due respect for 9/11 requires that our leaders continue to focus on our bipartisan, national goal of keeping our country safe from another attack.  When 9/11 is invoked, electioneering should not follow.

To Those Who Behead Innocent People

U.S. officials have confirmed that U.S. journalist James Foley was beheaded by the Islamic State In Syria (“ISIS”).  ISIS posted a video of the beheading on-line, but I’m not going to link to it because it would just serve their evil, depraved purposes.

I often think that there is a complete lack of understanding between the terrorist groups in the Middle East and the citizens of the United States.  The murderous thugs who make up ISIS might well have the misapprehension that beheading people like James Foley is going to make us cower.  They’re wrong, of course, so I want to correct the record with this short message: 

“Dear ISIS:

Just so you understand, your willingness to behead innocent people doesn’t scare us, it just infuriates us.  Because killing helpless people in cold blood is so abhorrent, it also tells us that your organization is so utterly lacking in basic values and human decency that you don’t deserve to be part of the community of civilized people.  We regret your act of callous murder, we cannot understand how anyone could rationalize such brutality, and we grieve for the Foley family in this time of terrible and completely unnecessary loss — but we also understand that your act exposes the true nature of ISIS.  We now know that your group is comprised of soulless butchers, and that knowledge will help to guide our decision-making in the future.

Make no mistake:  you are evil, and you will be punished for what you have done.  We will get you.  You deserve it, and it will happen.  And when it does, and your organization is scourged from the face of the planet, you can realize that it is your own fanatical bloodthirstiness that led to your downfall.”

The Alarm About Ebola

Africa seems very far away to most Americans.  In contrast to, say, Europe, we don’t know most of the names of the countries, we don’t learn much about the geography of the African continent, and we tend to hear about it only when a particularly bloodthirsty dictator or terrorist organization has committed another outrage.  The recent outbreak of Ebola Zaire in west Africa, though, is a story that should command the attention of Americans and everyone else in the world.

Ebola, which is transmitted by contact with bodily fluids, is one of the most deadly diseases in the world.  It’s a virus that wreaks havoc with human blood systems and immune responses, and in this most recent outbreak it has infected more than 2,000 people and has killed more than half of them.  In fact, in past outbreaks Ebola has been so deadly that it has restricted itself:  people who were infected became symptomatic and died before they had a chance to infect other people.  This time, though, the progress of the disease seems to be slower, somehow, and infected people have more of an opportunity to infect others.  For this reason, no one is quite sure how many people have been infected with Ebola in this latest outbreak — or, more importantly, exactly where they are.  That’s one of the things that should concern everyone.

There are other points of concern, too.  The deadliness of the disease has caused a breakdown of the health care systems in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, where this current outbreak is centered.  Due to fear of Ebola, many health care workers have fled their hospitals — which not only leaves Ebola untreated, but also opens the door to the spread of other diseases like malaria that are found in the region.  Even Doctors Without Borders is having trouble finding people to treat Ebola patients.

In addition, this latest Ebola outbreak has occurred in a place where Ebola has never been seen before.  The virus somehow traveled hundreds of miles, from central Africa to west Africa, without any human outbreaks along the way; researchers think it might have been carried by swarms of bats.  Now it is found in much more densely populated areas and — here is a key point — areas that have airports that can carry passengers to huge international airports where they can connect to flights that might carry them just about anywhere in the world.  Combine that fact with the more slow-moving nature of this strain of Ebola, and you can see how this disease could spread, uncontrolled, to a much larger geographic area. 

And here’s the last concerning thing:  this deadly disease outbreak is raging on a continent that has been home to chaos, tribal genocide, rampaging terrorist groups, and other forms of social disorder in recent times.  In Monrovia, Liberia, “looters” recently attacked a temporary holding center for Ebola patients, ransacked it, and ran off with blood-soaked sheets and mattresses.  That troubling incident raises the question of whether they weren’t “looters” at all, but rather members of a terrorist group — such as Boko Haram — who are trying to acquire a means to spread the disease as part of their savage campaign to establish control over territory and kill anyone who doesn’t adopt their religious and political views.  That is truly a frightening scenario.

So this story manages to combine an incredibly deadly disease, a mass outbreak, swarms of virus-carrying bats, health system breakdowns, and potential terrorist concerns in one appalling package.  Yes, I’d say this is a time when we all should be paying attention to news from Africa.