Monday, October 20, 2014

Marc Thiessen, Ignorant Alarmist on Ebola

That Marc Thiessen... he just loves to argue from fear. Today, from the starting point of a "worst case scenario" involving an intentional release of smallpox in a series of U.S. shopping malls, he's feigning concern that Ebola could be use for biological warfare. Describing this "worst case scenario" for smallpox,
After 13 days, 16,000 smallpox cases have been reported in 25 states and 1,000 people have died. Vaccine supplies have been depleted. Canada and Mexico have closed their borders to the United States. It has become logistically impossible to identify and isolate smallpox victims and their contacts to prevent the disease from spreading. Trading on the stock exchanged is suspended. International commerce grinds to a halt. No country in the world will allow flights originating in or transiting through the United States to land. States have closed their borders with other states. There are riots and looting throughout the country.

After 25 days, the number of cases has risen to 30,000, with 10,000 expected to die, and the National Security Council is advised that, absent large scale and successful vaccination programs, the epidemic “could conceivably comprise as many as 3,000,000 cases of smallpox and lead to 1,000,000 deaths.”
If we're assuming that smallpox is epidemic within the United States inside of two weeks, it would be too late to close the borders. The U.S. is a highly mobile nation, and U.S. travelers would already have spread the virus around the world. In terms of what might happen in the absence of a large scale and successful vaccination program, we need not be particularly worried as we would see such a program immediately implemented. Whether it would be compulsory, or whether we would allow people to let themselves and their children become infected with smallpox due to religious objections or fantasies about the evils of vaccines, is a discussion for another day -- the vast majority of people would eagerly extend their arms for the jab of a needle.

Thiessen appears to be unaware of why biological warfare has been largely avoided. Certainly we have a history of smallpox being used as a biological weapon of sorts in this country, with the "plague traders" who would sell infected blankets to an Indian village, collect them after the virus wiped out most of their customers, then sell the same infected blankets to another village. But the fact is, playing around with germ warfare is extremely dangerous. If you release germs to the wind, assuming you can create an effective means of delivery, you can't count on the winds not to blow them right back in your face. If you try to strike a more technologically sophisticated opponent with a virulent disease, you risk having that disease communicated back into your own population -- which lacks the same level of sophistication and resources for containment, vaccination and treatment. If we're talking about state-sponsored terrorism, let's just say that a sudden, mass-vaccination program for smallpox would be noticed -- and if you don't protect your own population, "successful" germ warfare with a disease like smallpox is going to bite you in the posterior.

This is Thiessen writing, so you know his argument is going to get worse. And it does.
So what about Ebola?

Unlike smallpox, which is hard to come by, the Ebola infection is raging right now in parts of Africa where Islamist extremists could have easy access.
Except that the people who use it in "worst case" germ warfare scenarios aren't imagining that it would be stolen from a secure laboratory. They know that at present the smallpox virus can be synthesized, and they know that as time progresses the lab technology to synthesize viruses like smallpox and polio will only get cheaper. But never mind that, Thiessen has come up with a dark fantasy that he believes will scare your pants right off of you:
Ebola has up to a 21-day incubation period — more than enough time for terrorists to infect themselves and then come here with the virus. In a nightmare scenario, suicide bombers infected with Ebola could blow themselves up in a crowded place — say, shopping malls in Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Atlanta — spreading infected tissue and bodily fluids.
Let's pause for a moment and reflect on the total number of suicide bombers who have made it into the United States and blown themselves up in shopping malls. With the number "zero" resonating in your head, now picture Thiessen's fantasy -- these would-be suicide terrorists would be picked from people wholly unknown to the United States government or any of its internal or allied intelligence agencies. They would get visas to the United States. Shortly before coming to the United States, they would visit an Ebola-infected region and deliberately expose themselves to infected blood and vomit. Nobody would notice this unusual travel pattern. Then they would come to the United States before becoming symptomatic, acquire the material to build suicide vests, build those vests, and blow themselves up in shopping malls.

Thiessen seems to realize the absurdity of his own scenario, as he continues,
Or, the virus could also be released more subtly. Terrorists could collect samples of infected body fluids, and then place them on doorknobs, handrails or airplane tray tables, allowing Ebola to spread quietly before officials even realize that a biological attack has taken place.
Of course, we're back to the question of containment. Even in this scenario Thiessen is taking the approach of the worst case scenario, the notion that Ebola can survive for long periods of time in trace amounts on surfaces and remain highly contagious. Thiessen also seems to know, despite his earlier fear-mongering, that such a means of attempted transmission would not be very effective -- now he's imagining "what would happen if 50, 100 or more Ebola patients started showing up at U.S. hospitals". He posits that it would result in mass panic -- which may be true, but if so would have a lot less to do with Ebola itself than with demagogues like Thiessen. And, again, the more widespread the infection, the more likely it is that the disease is going to spread to other nations -- and potentially devastate the nations Thiessen fantasizes as being the source of the "germ warfare".

Having played a central role in the beating of the drums of war, Thiessen is fully aware of how the U.S. managed to manipulate the segment of the population that was unaware that Saddam Hussein played no role in the 9/11 attacks into supporting a full-scale assault on Iraq. What does Thiessen believe the response would be to a group that claimed responsibility for an effective germ warfare attack within the United States, or for a government that sponsored such an attack? That is, Thiessen's terrorists would not only have to operate with a significant level of sophistication in preparing their plot and getting infectious matter to the United States, while being simultaneously ignorant of the inherent dangers in germ warfare, they would have to be wholly undeterred by the idea that the United States would respond with a military fury that would make "shock and awe" in Iraq look like a children's party.

Also, but for the fact that it's presently in the headlines why Ebola? It's a terrifying disease, certainly, but it's not particularly communicable and to date the evidence is that an infected person is not infectious until they're symptomatic -- at which time, due to the severity of symptoms, at least in this country they're apt to be seeking emergency medical attention. That helps explain the zero cases identified to date where an infected person in the developed world spread Ebola to another person while outside of a hospital.

As is Thiessen's wont, he has to include a gratuitous slam against the President,
Then there is the impact of all the false assurances from President Obama that Ebola was unlikely to reach our shores and that if it did that “our doctors, our nurses and our medical staff are trained, are ready, and are able to deal with a possible case safely.”
which brings to mind a column by Fred Hiatt, the guy who believes that Thiessen is an asset to the Washington Post's editorial pages:
With a new week, and the possibility of additional Ebola patients, Americans — or at least American politicians — have an urgent need: someone to blame.

After all, while more than 4,000 Africans dying of Ebola was not enough to grab our attention, two infected nurses in the United States is a full-fledged crisis.

To save readers from viewing hours of repetitive cable television and political advertising, I assembled a handy list of villains proposed (or soon to be proposed) by talking heads of the left and right. Feel free to select one or more.
  • President Obama, for caring about Africans more than he cares about us....

  • Obama, for not listening to the World Health Organization’s warnings on Ebola....

What’s striking in the present case is how the absence of that sense of unity feeds on itself. Obama shouldn’t have suggested that Ebola was unlikely to reach America, Frieden shouldn’t have assured us that every hospital would be ready on Day One.

But in a climate that is so unforgiving, so quick to pounce, so unwilling to accept that mistakes will be made and should be learned from, it’s understandable that leaders trap themselves into promising more than they can deliver.

A desire for accountability does not have to preclude a certain generosity of spirit, or some empathy for those who are performing public service. We seem to have forgotten that.
There's a danger in taking a stance against demagogues, fear-mongering and gotcha politics when one need only scan across the printed page, or click a link on the virtual page, to see one (or more) of your own columnists engaging in the behavior you are pretending to decry. If you want "talking heads of the left and right" to display a more generous spirit, holding people accountable while admitting their own role in trapping leaders into over-promising, perhaps the first thing to do is to clean house.

Meanwhile, Thiessen should reflect on the comments that his column is generating which, unlike those he hopes to generate -- angry rant against the President and Democrats -- mostly identify him as having written a terrible column designed to create fear.

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