Well, it’s been quite the weekend for Ebola panic.

After a doctor returning from West Africa and living the urban hipster dream was diagnosed with Ebola late on Thursday, the initial response by New York authorities was one of calm. Twenty-four hours later, Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie took matters into their own hands by declaring a mandatory 21-day quarantine for any medical personnel returning from Ebola-afflicted countries in West Africa.

So far there have been just a few bumps in the road in implementing these new quarantine procedures. Those bumps include:

  1. The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology opposing the mandatory quarantine — but what do they know?
  2. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases declaring that the quarantine was a bad idea — but what does he know?
  3. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières — which has been on the front lines of this epidemic since it began in West Africa — declaring concern about the uncertainty of the quarantine process — but what do they know?
  4. The quarantining of Kaci Hickox, a returning health-care worker, who a) feels she was treated better in Sierra Leone than Newark; and b) has not been shy about highlighting the absurdities of the quarantine procedure as it’s been implemented so far.

So, to sum up: just about anyone who knows something about Ebola labeled the New York/New Jersey quarantine as “Draconian.” Or as Slate’s Josh Vorhees, put it, “If Cuomo, a Democrat, and Christie, a Republican, do believe they’re acting in the public’s best interest, then they haven’t done their research.” 

Since that announcement, Cuomo has walked back the New York guidelines a bit, while Christie has doubled down on his original order, which will only create more confusion about the consistency of procedures. It also highlights the variation in local responses to Ebola.

This episode says two things about governing against risks and threats right now. The first is the extent to which security theater has moved beyond the airports and has permeated the rest of American society.  The NJ/NY quarantine procedures will not really prevent the further spread of Ebola, since all it does is confine asymptomatic individuals, who therefore cannot spread the infection. The failure to consult with any experts whatsoever before the new procedures were announced highlights the absence of any non-political rationale for doing this.

No, let’s be clear — Cuomo and Christie acted in the interest of being perceived as “doing something” highly visible even though those actions will not make anyone safer. It’s the definition of security theater. And since the first rule of security theater is that you can’t admit that it’s security theater — because it undercuts the proposed reassurance — it becomes impossible to have a proper debate about it.

The second and more long-lasting question to ask, however is what happens if you apply the logic behind ‘abundance of caution‘ to other areas of possible regulation. In essence, the calls for stronger procedures to halt the spread of Ebola amount to the Americanization of the “precautionary principle.” This is the notion that there are risks so great that unless one can scientifically determine that an action is safe, out of an abundance of caution that action should be prohibited.

Many conservatives advocate for travel bans and mandatory quarantines out of an abundance of caution — pointing to evidence that there are small probabilities that something really bad could happen under current CDC guidelines. . But it is worth asking what other risky actions should also be restricted if one applied this kind of risk-reward calculation to other areas of policy concern. For example, the scientific consensus about climate change is much stronger than the scientific consensus about the possibility of this strain of Ebola going airborne. But if one applies the precautionary principle to global warming, it would require a pretty Draconian policy response.

Similarly, if the rationale for mandatory quarantine is the concern that returnees from West Africa will not abide by voluntary protocols, it does lead one to ask if there are other areas where people might not adhere to voluntary guidelines. After all, guns can be just as deadly as Ebola, but we trust citizens to exercise gun safety at all times. Out of an abundance of caution, should we reconsider that assumption?

To be clear, I think the precautionary principle is an insane way of regulating most things. But when politicians or activists advocate for preventive measures based on this kind of reasoning, it’s worth stepping back and considering why Ebola justifies this kind of response, but other possible threats to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness do not.