They are dark, unseen enemies, come from far away – and they are scaring us witless. ISIS is not a disease, and Ebola is not a terror organization. But fear is their common currency: intentional for one, inevitable for the other. Today they can seem to be working in tandem, a pincer movement paralyzing the world’s governments as it terrifies the world’s people. Each time one advances, the space for the other expands.
From the vantage point of the west, the similarities are obvious. It starts with a menace that was once obscure and understood by few, with a name that keeps shifting (is it Isis, Isil or IS?) or a pronunciation that is uncertain (is it ee-boh-la or ebb-ola?), and which suddenly becomes all-pervasive, threatening catastrophe.
In both cases, the turning point came when the victims were no longer distant others, but people deemed to be like us. So the Islamic State became impossible to ignore not when it conducted mass executions, on camera, of hundreds of Iraqi and Syrian fighters, but when it beheaded western hostages, men whose names sounded like our own: James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning. Ebola was an African problem until cases surfaced in places we could point to on a map: Madrid or Dallas.
But the greater similarity is the feeling of impotence that both crises prompt. The US, the most armed nation in the history of humankind, the world’s hyperpower, which spends more on weapons than the 10 next highest-spending nations combined, that country – along with five European allies and partners from the Gulf states – is pounding Isis from the air and yet making only marginal progress. No one is talking of victory over Isis; most speak of merely containing it. Meanwhile, the same US, with all its state-of-the-art technology and germproof suits, couldn’t prevent one of its nurses catching Ebola. You can hardly blame those inside and outside America who look at both situations and feel overwhelmed.
Against that impotence rages the cry that something must be done. It loses little ardor when it is confronted with evidence that that something is likely to do no good.
From the start, military strategists pointed out the obvious defects in a policy of air strikes against Isis. Surely its fighters would hide themselves and their (serious) military kit rather than remain exposed in plain sight, as a nicely accessible target. And if ISIS did hide among civilians, then western attacks would end up killing innocents not militants, thereby creating sympathy, and recruits, for the Jihadists. As for the British (and European) willingness to hit ISIS in Iraq but not Syria, that surely was to insist on a border that had been erased by war. ISIS operates in both countries, combining them into a single battlefield. Surely it was quaintly legalistic of America’s allies to preserve a distinction that events had made defunct.
The errors in the anti-Ebola strategy were just as obvious. “Enhanced screening” at British airports and Eurostar terminals carries the smack of firm, decisive action. But health experts coughed politely and noted that such screening would not pick up those whose symptoms were not yet visible, and would be no protection at all against those who lied about their movements.
The experts further warned that a likely product of such measures would be increased anxiety, which might hinder – not help – the one action that really would make a difference: getting doctors and nurses to go to West Africa and combat Ebola on the ground.
Late last year, Obama appointed an Ebola tsar, a title that suggests a contagious disease can be instructed to recede by imperial fiat.
But the biggest problem might also be the most prosaic. It is simply that these two big crises have struck at once.
We must admit even the White House – regularly imagined by Hollywood as the throbbing heart of power, bursting with might – could only cope with one major international issue at a time.
Of course, one thing has always been true: leaders have to deal with both the crises the public know about and those boiling away below the surface, as well as trying to advance their own agenda, rather than merely reacting to events.
But in an age known as the “the new world disorder”, where ISIS and Ebola take their place alongside an ongoing war in Ukraine, and where the authoritarian behemoths Russia and China are becoming more assertive, that is becoming harder than ever.
There is simply not enough capacity to deal with all these problems at once. We make mistakes in our handling of each of them, and so they all get worse. ISIS feeds Ebola, and Ebola feeds ISIS – and our fear feeds them both.
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