Frank Rich on the National Circus: Ebola Panic Is Straight From the Twilight Zone

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Let's hear him out.Photo: Allison Shelley/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Making sense of the overheated Ebola and Klinghoffer panics.

In the two weeks since the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, Ebola hysteria has taken hold in some corners of the U.S., with school closures, paid leaves, and cruise ship quarantines enacted to protect the populace from dozens of people who did not actually have the disease. So far, only two people we know of have been infected by Ebola on U.S. soil (both were nurses who treated Duncan), public health officials have offered clear and consistent explanations of the minimal risks of contracting the disease, and even Fox News — or, at least, Fox News anchor Shep Smith — has tried to quell the panic. Why are Americans still so worked up about this?

Of all the incidents of runaway Ebola hysteria in America, the one that most grabbed me was reported by the Times on Sunday: A man in Payson, Arizona, decided to submit to a self-imposed quarantine and remain in his house for no other reason than he had been in Liberia as a missionary on a church trip. His good deed did not go unpunished: After taking that extra (and gratuitous) precaution, he found himself the victim of a “lynch-mob mentality” manifested by at least one anonymous threat to burn down his house. The incident made me think of that classic 1960 Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which paranoid suburban neighbors, gripped by fear of an invasion from outer space, do the monsters’ work for them by destroying their community and each other in mob violence.

You know things are bad when a Fox News anchor is the voice of reason, telling his viewers to ignore the “very irresponsible” media voices fueling the Ebola panic. Of course, some of the most irresponsible voices were on his own network, including George Will, who malignantly spread the canard that Ebola was airborne, and Gretchen Carlson, an anchor who somehow found a conspiracy connecting Ebola, the IRS, Obamacare, and, inevitably, Benghazi. Right-wing radio has chimed in, and so have Republican politicians, who have variously called for sealing borders and visa suspensions, as if Ebola were another wave of immigrants in need of a fence. Just goes to show that it’s hard to create a coherent, let alone effective, policy to deal with a medical emergency when you don’t accept the core notion that there is such a thing as empirical scientific knowledge. The point of all this political posturing is not to save lives, in any case, but to somehow smear the president with Ebola for advantage in the election two weeks from now. 

It’s my impression that the panic is starting to ebb. Enough sane voices, in the medical community, government, and even the press, have beamed in the message that you are far more likely to be struck down by the flu, guns, air bags, or even lightning than this virus. But surely there will be some new panic to replace it soon. The mood in the country is horrible, and we’ll keep searching for new nemeses and new scapegoats. Once the election has come and gone — and there’s no catharsis or improvement in the public mood, no matter what the result — it will be fascinating to see what monsters will be sighted on Maple Street next.

The Death of Klinghoffer — John Adams’s 1991 opera on the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestine Liberation Front terrorists — premiered at the Met on Monday, inciting a large demonstration from protestors who claimed it was anti-Semitic and a distortion of history. You were at the premiere. Is Klinghoffer anti-Semitic? And what do you make of the uproar around it?
This is another example of displaced hysteria and it has very little to do with the actual content of this opera, which most of the time has been presented without protest in America (in St. Louis, yet) and elsewhere over its 20-year-plus history. The sad fact is that in the aftermath of this year’s Gaza war, an understandable panic has taken root in some corners of American Jewry, who fear that support for Israel is wavering even in this country — let alone in Europe, where an alarming uptick in anti-Semitism is adding another toxic component to perennial anti-Israeli animus. It’s easier to hyperventilate about an opera giving a total of eight performances at Lincoln Center than to address the graver issues at hand.

Most of those who have cast aspersions on Klinghoffer, starting with Abraham Foxman of the Anti Defamation League and continuing with those who echoed his views on Op Ed pages, have not seen it. If they had been there Monday night, they might have been embarrassed by the vast discrepancy between what was on stage and their public pronouncements about it. Then again, maybe they still wouldn’t pay attention. A heckler at the premiere repeatedly called out “The murder of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven!” — a true head-scratcher since nothing in the opera asks for forgiveness of Klinghoffer’s murder or the terrorists who committed it.

Klinghoffer has zero anti-Semitism. It does have what Justin Davidson of New York has accurately described as a “clumsy libretto” — dramaturgically diffuse, often lyrically banal — though it is far more lucid in this gripping, beautifully sung Tom Morris production than it was in Peter Sellars’s original at BAM. Not for a second does the opera present the terrorists as anything other than cold-blooded killers — in Adams’s score and the staging as well as in words — and not for a second does your heart fail to go out to their victims, led by Leon Klinghoffer. The performance ends with a wrenching solo by the widowed Marilyn Klinghoffer — “They should have killed me / I wanted to die” — and, as Alex Ross of The New Yorker tweeted Monday night, “In the end, the protest failed completely. Marilyn Klinghoffer had the final word, and John Adams received a huge ovation.”

“Never forget” has been a Jewish imperative since the Holocaust. What has been forgotten by the instigators of this manufactured fracas is that many if not most people — non-Jews  — have forgotten both the Achille Lauro hijacking and Leon Klinghoffer in the nearly three-decade-long crush of subsequent horrors in the narrative of modern terrorism. The good news about both this production and the extra publicity generated by the protests is that they will keep the memory of Leon Klinghoffer and the barbarity of his killers alive. Most people cannot get to the Met to see it, needless to say, and the cancellation of the originally planned Live in HD theatrical broadcast will further diminish the Met’s audience. But you can watch Klinghoffer on DVD in a previous production from England’s Channel Four or listen to the score in the definitive Nonesuch recording. Such opportunistic Klinghoffer foes as Rudy Giuliani, Alan Dershowitz, and the New York Democratic Congressswoman Carolyn Maloney will not be able to restrict the circulation of these other iterations. Indeed they and the other protestors have already succeeded in temporarily selling out the Klinghoffer DVD at Amazon. But you can still find either it or the Nonesuch recording at Walmart, Target, and Barnes & Noble, or on iTunes.