Richard Preston, whose 1994 book “The Hot Zone” brought the Ebola virus terrifyingly to life for readers, once described how, during his research, his biohazard suit had ripped open, exposing him to a potentially fatal toxin.
“I started to feel giddy,” Preston wrote in “Panic in Level 4,” a 2008 collection of essays. “It was an intoxicating rush of fear, a sensation that all I needed to do was relax and let the fear take hold, and I could drift away on waves of panic, screaming for help.”
You could feel a shiver of panic coursing through the American body politic this week as the country struggled with a metastatic set of crises: the spread of the Ebola virus, the surge of Islamic State terrorists and the buckling global economy. Listening to the news, many Americans must have felt a small version of Preston’s “intoxicating rush of fear” that the protection layer had been breached.
President Obama tried to speak calmly to a rattled nation on Wednesday, describing how he had kissed and embraced nurses at Emory University Hospital who had treated Ebola patients safely. Don’t panic, was the unspoken message. It’s safe. Listening to the president, you couldn’t help but wonder if he was straining to keep a polarized, fearful country from losing its cool.
Panic is a natural human response to danger, but it’s one that severely compounds the risk. Frightened people want to protect themselves, sometimes without thinking about others. Often, they get angry and want to find someone to blame for catastrophe. Inevitably, they spread information without checking whether it’s true.
Fear brings out the best in some people and the worst in others. It’s a test of character, for individuals and nations. That’s why the stories of the New York City firefighters rushing upstairs to their deaths in the twin towers on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, became a kind of national legend. It showed the human spirit in its most selfless form.
We can’t all be heroic firefighters, and this week we began to see a display of less noble emotions. Inevitably, the blame game began: How had Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital misdiagnosed Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan and allowed two nurses to become infected? Fair question, but criticism soon escalated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, probably the world’s best resource in combating infectious disease and one of the first responders to the Ebola epidemic. Rather than cheering the firefighters, people were sniping at them.
My own business, the news media, has a peculiar responsibility in times like these. We have to deliver information quickly and reliably, and also hold officials accountable for their performance — all without unnecessarily frightening people or contributing to the kind of hysteria that makes public-health measures more difficult. This role is harder in an unfiltered, Internet-driven media world, where careful reporting can look to some people like suppression of information.
One of the best comments I saw came from Shepard Smith, an anchor for Fox News, a network not always a voice for reason and calm. On Wednesday afternoon, Smith admonished viewers not to panic about Ebola. He was passionate, and maybe you can argue that journalists shouldn’t give medical advice, but here’s part of what he said:
“Today, given what we know, you should have no concerns about Ebola at all. None. I promise. Unless a medical professional has contacted you personally and told you of some sort of possible exposure, fear not. Do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and the television or read the fear-provoking words online. The people who say and write hysterical things are being very irresponsible. . . .
“Suggestions have been made publicly that leaders and medical professionals may be lying to us. Those suggestions are completely without basis and fact. There is no evidence of any kind of which we at Fox News are aware that leaders have lied about anything regarding Ebola. . . . There is no Ebola spreading in America. Should that change, our reporting will change.”
Smith was hammered online for telling Fox viewers (and everyone else) to calm down. But he was right. Amazon may be offering books with titles like “Ebola: The Ultimate Survival Guide.” But the best advice for now is what Smith offered viewers: Don’t panic. And get a flu shot.
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