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Tuesday, 07 October 2014 06:27

ISIS, Ebola, and Why Fear of the Unknown Makes Us Stupid

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aaaEbola(Photo: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith)"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown"

- Howard Phillips Lovecraft

As weeks go, last week wasn’t exactly a great one. It began with the inevitable appearance of Ebola in the United States. It ended with ISIS beheading yet another hostage. Our two biggest fears on the global stage just flexed their muscles and got scarier. It is no surprise then, that there is a panicky edge to the discussion of either topic, or that the proposed solutions to either issue are becoming ever more extreme and outlandish.

Let’s take a step back for a second. Yes, Ebola is awful. The death toll in West Africa is over 3000, and the total number of cases could hit 1.4 million within 4 months. Given that the current outbreak has a mortality rate that is pushing 60%, those are grim figures. But, despite widespread panic, the number of confirmed cases within the United States remains at exactly one. And yes, ISIS is awful. Over 5000 Iraqis have died as a result of its military actions, and ISIS is singularly unconcerned with avoiding things like genocide or war crimes. But how many Western hostages have been beheaded by ISIS? Four, a number that will hopefully remain unchanged.

That last paragraph could be taken in a very nasty way. No Americans dying? Eh, who cares? That isn’t my intention at all. What is interesting is how we’ve seemed to settle upon ISIS and Ebola as our designated fears of the season, especially since things aren’t going all that well elsewhere. From the Ukraine, to Hong Kong, to Egypt, to Estonia, there are any number of areas in the world where things could very rapidly spiral out of control just as easily as the situation in Iraq and Syria. Back at home, heart disease kills 600,000 every year, and even a lightweight like measles has taken 41 in 2014. Again, it would seem that there are many things out there that are every bit as threatening, if not more threatening, than Ebola.

So why is it that we’ve directed our focus in such a fashion? What is it about Ebola and ISIS that alarm us so? All of us have our fears, and they are as unique to us as fingerprints. But I think that there is one primal fear that unites us all, and that H.P. Lovecraft had it right when he claimed it was the fear of the unknown. There is something fundamentally terrifying about that which cannot be grasped and which eludes any attempt at understanding. I submit that both ISIS and Ebola fall into this category of the incomprehensible, which is why our reactions to them are so seemingly disproportionate.

Heart disease? Sure, it kills lots of people, but we basically get it. Eat well, get some exercise, don’t smoke, and you’ll probably be just fine. Don’t follow that advice and you might die, which is awful, but perfectly understandable. Ebola, on the other hand, is more than a little mysterious. Its symptoms are horrific, treatment is nothing more than keeping said symptoms from killing the patient for long enough for them to recover and, the more people who are infected, the greater a chance that the thing will mutate and go airborne and then we’re all doomed. And, of course, Ebola comes from Africa, and if you don’t detect a whiff of the bad old depiction of Africa as the “Dark Continent” in current coverage, you’re not looking hard enough.

We don’t understand Ebola, and so we are terrified.

The Ukraine or Hong Kong? We feel as though we have a grasp on those situations, to the extent that we pay attention to them. They fit into comfortable narratives – Putin’s imperial ambitions or China’s tendency to repress democratic expression. It all makes sense to us, when we bother to think about it. ISIS on the other hand is the savage “other.” They behead people. They massacre villages. Their actions are incomprehensible to us.

We don’t understand ISIS, and so we are terrified.

Here’s the problem with fear: it leads to bad policy. This is why there are idiots who think that a fine solution to Ebola is to drop napalm on it. Or why there are other idiots proclaiming that Ebola is a creation of the U.S. Department of Defense (which is not a terribly helpful thing to be tossing about in West Africa, where the people’s suspicion of governments is already hampering efforts to fight the disease). This is why our solution to ISIS is more bombs, despite the inevitable blowback that will come from the “collateral damage” we are already inflicting. This is why Americans actually support the notion of deploying ground troops against ISIS, even with full knowledge of the disastrous history of our intervention in the region.

It feels like the terrified response of a man who, upon finding a spider under his bed, burns down his house with a flamethrower.

We don’t understand. And that lack of understanding leads to fear. And that fear leads to acting like idiots. If we truly want to address our twin bugbears of the moment, perhaps we need to spend some time actually trying to understand them, instead of lashing out like overpowered, terrified children.


Akira Watts failed to graduate with a B.A. in philosophy from Amherst College and is now an itinerant IT worker. He resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he has written a wretchedly unpublishable novel. He has been making another go of it with a literary choose-your-own-adventure work about the rise and fall of an avant-garde artistic collective. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..