William Rivers Pitt | This Nation of Cowards

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It is likely that most of us, myself included, will live out our entire lives and die without ever meeting someone who willingly and purposefully volunteers to spend their vacation thousands of miles away, tending to people with diseases that make the talking heads on CNN and Fox want to hide under the bed. Kaci Hickox, a nurse from Maine who graduated from Johns Hopkins, is one such person.

In 2010, Hickox traveled overseas with the organization Doctors Without Borders to treat people suffering from yellow fever, one of several trips she made with that organization. Until last Friday, she was in Sierra Leone for a month, spending her vacation time helping to treat people infected with Ebola, the virus that has been burning through western Africa at an unprecedented rate. Kaci Hickox went to one of the most unstable countries in the world to help fight a deadly disease because someone had to, and so she raised her hand.

On Friday, she came home to a timorous nation of cowards.

That same day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo teamed up with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to establish a mandatory 21-day quarantine for any health workers returning from West Africa. When she landed at the ironically-named Liberty International Airport in Newark, she informed an immigration official that she had just returned from Sierra Leone, and was immediately hustled into a room. For the next several hours, she was questioned harshly by several people wearing bio-suits without being told exactly what was going on. According to her, nobody seemed to be in charge.

One man whose gun was visible under his bio-suit, in Hickox own words, “barked questions at me as if I was a criminal.” After several hours passed, she was brought to University Hospital in Newark in a speeding sirens-blaring lights-flashing caravan of eight police cars. Upon arrival, she was stuffed into a quarantine tent with scant furniture, a port-o-potty and no shower, and was informed that this would be her home for the next twenty-one days.

Kaci Hickox, in her own words:

I had spent a month watching children die, alone. I had witnessed human tragedy unfold before my eyes. I had tried to help when much of the world has looked on and done nothing.

At the hospital, I was escorted to a tent that sat outside of the building. The infectious disease and emergency department doctors took my temperature and other vitals and looked puzzled. “Your temperature is 98.6,” they said. “You don’t have a fever but we were told you had a fever.”

After my temperature was recorded as 98.6 on the oral thermometer, the doctor decided to see what the forehead scanner records. It read 101. The doctor felts my neck and looked at the temperature again. “There’s no way you have a fever,” he said. “Your face is just flushed.”

My blood was taken and tested for Ebola. It came back negative.

I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal. Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?

Hickox began raising Hell about her treatment and the violation of her basic rights. The right-wing blogosphere launched itself into action, denouncing her for being a Democrat and dismissing her complaints because she voted for President Obama. Gov. Christie, one of the duo who ordered her mandatory quarantine, stood by his decision because, as he said, it was his job to protect the citizens of New Jersey. His concern for his constituents was evident, given that he was more than a thousand miles away when he defended his quarantine policy, campaigning for Rick Scott in Florida.

On Monday, Christie was forced to retreat, announcing that Kaci Hickox would be “allowed” to serve out the remainder of her mandatory quarantine at home.

“Allowed.”

“I didn’t reverse my decision,” said Gov. Christie later on Monday while still being so deeply concerned for his constituents that he was still campaigning for Gov. Scott in Florida, when pressed on his sudden change of heart. “She hadn’t had any symptoms for 24 hours. And she tested negative for Ebola. So there was no reason to keep her. The reason she was put into the hospital in the first place was because she was running a high fever and was symptomatic.”

Lies. Hickox had no fever. She was not symptomatic. She remains so. Yet she has been “allowed” to go home from involuntary detention by a politician who clearly doesn’t have the facts, but made sure she would be detained, as he campaigns for another politician in the Sunshine State.

New York Gov. Cuomo, the other side of this mandatory quarantine coin, took the time to invite any health worker detained after returning from their heroic work to “read my book” as a way to pass the time. One can understand why he would choose a civil liberties crisis to pitch his deep thoughts: at the time of this publication, Cuomo’s book has sold less than a thousand copies. That’s not a very impressive sales number for a salesman selling himself as Vice-Presidential material in the run-up to the 2016 election…and then he, like Christie, backpedaled on his mandatory quarantine plan.

The American Bar Association has weighed in on the legality of the Christie/Cuomo mandatory quarantine program. “States are required to protect civil liberties during public health emergencies,” they wrote. “Quarantine and isolation orders must be conducted in accordance with substantive and procedural due process, and any restrictions of civil liberties should be legal and as minimally restrictive as reasonably possible.” Kaci Hickox would seem to agree. According to Reuters, Hickox intends to file a federal lawsuit on the grounds that her involuntary confinement was a violation of her civil rights.

When she wins that suit, I will raise a toast to her: a woman who volunteered to send herself into peril to assuage the suffering of others, who returned home with no fever and no symptoms, but was quarantined like a bug in a bottle because two craven politicians decided to catch the frantic media-driven wave and show how they were being Tough On Ebola in the War On Ebola, to the detriment of Kaci Hickox and other health workers who have more courage in the moon of their pinkie fingernail than those two governors have in their whole pander-prone bodies.

“Allowed.”

“The tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny,” Aesop tells us. These days, the tyrant will justify that tyranny by playing to the fears of the people. Kaci Hickox is but one example of a nation that has entirely surrendered to those fears, both real and imagined, because those fears are a facile way for TV networks to get ratings, and for politicians to get coverage by stoking those fears, which creates more fear, which generates ratings, which makes political careers. Lather rinse repeat.

This is what happens in a nation trained to be fearful by a media and political establishment which profits from that fear. We have seen it with terrorism, and with WMD in Iraq, and Bird Flu, and “They’re coming for your guns,” and immigration, and now ISIS, and in so many other moments as well. Now, it is Ebola, which is dangerous to be sure, but not to the point that we explode the Bill of Rights, again. For the record, it seems the CDC would seem to agree.

This is what happens to an ill-informed populace which is not taught to be strong, and fair, and true to the ideals of their founding, but is instead convinced by the very entities tasked to protect and inform them that they are, actually, about to die at the hands of this week’s bloviated threat.

This is how a nation of cowards is made.

Mission accomplished.