On Ebola, Like Terrorism, We Don't Actually Have to Be Right 100 Percent of the Time

I'm done (for the moment, anyway) writing entire posts trying to remind/convince people that the chances of you dying from Ebola are incredibly small. But that doesn't mean there isn't more to say about the often idiotic reactions people are having to a disease that has infected a grand total of two Americans on U.S. soil. This struck me this morning:

Rep. Tim Murphy, who chaired a hearing last week questioning the Obama administration's response to the Ebola virus, argued again on Sunday for restricting travel from West African countries where the disease is threatening to spill over into the rest of the continent.

"This is like dealing with terrorism," the Republican congressman from Pennsylvania said on "Fox News Sunday." "We have to be right 100 percent of the time, and Ebola only has to get in once."

Representative Murphy is both exactly right and spectacularly wrong. He's wrong because Ebola doesn't only have to get in once. It already got in! And most Americans remain weirdly unkilled by it. For all the problems at that Dallas hospital that resulted in two nurses being infected (a horrible thing, no doubt), that seems to have been it, at least for the moment. There's no evidence that anyone else has been infected.

But Murphy is right in that Ebola is producing some of the same insane overreactions that terrorism did and continues to do. That "We have to be right 100 percent of the time" argument has been repeated a zillion times with regard to terrorism, and there are two problems with it. The first is that we don't, actually. What if we were right 99 percent of the time? Then there might be a successful terrorist attack every once in a while. And then what? It would be awful, and the nation would survive. We don't say we have to stop 100 percent of the 30,000 or so gun deaths in America each year, or that we have to prevent 100 percent of the medical errors that kill tens or hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, or that we have to prevent 100 percent of the excess deaths from respiratory illness due to power plant pollution.

On all those other things, which kill many more of us than terrorism ever will, we say, well, we'll do what we can, but you have to balance preventing those deaths against other things that are also important to some of us. Sure, it'd be nice if we didn't have so many gun deaths, but we don't want to restrict people's right to bear arms. It'd be great if fewer people got sick from dirty air, but we don't want our electric bills going up. When you enter "100 percent" territory, all other considerations must be secondary.

The second problem with the "100 percent" argument is that it inevitably becomes the justification for all manner of policy excesses, including spending hundreds of billions of dollars to create an Orwellian national security state and abandoning all kinds of civil liberties. We need to keep records of everyone's phone calls, because we have to be right 100 percent of the time. We need to know what books Americans take out of the library, because we have to be right 100 percent of the time. We need to invade Iraq, because we have to be right 100 percent of the time.

The objection some now have to the federal government's response is that it isn't enough like our response to terrorism, which is to say it doesn't reflect that 100 percent perspective. You can find that perspective in some places — for instance, today the New York Times reports on some of the reaction from people who are both terrified and ignorant, like the parents who kept their kids home from school because the principal had travelled to Zambia, where there has been no Ebola despite being in the very same continent as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. So why not close all the schools? And while we're at it, stop all flights in and out of Texas and post Army units at the highways on the state's border with shoot-to-kill orders on anyone trying to leave? After all, Ebola only has to be right once.

While the Obama administration in general and the CDC in particular are hardly above criticism in this matter, we can give them some credit for one thing: at least they haven't succumbed to 100 percent thinking. Not yet, anyway.

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