In Airports, Security Theater Is Morphing Into Ebola Theater

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Photo: Photo: James Nazz/Corbis

Is the government doing enough to protect us from Ebola? At a time of widespread panic and misunderstanding, it’s a hot question — one that has generated a lot of conversation and at least one memorably nonsensical rant from Nancy Grace. And this week, the Centers for Disease Control announced plans to institute Ebola screening for passengers arriving in the country (as of this writing, we don’t yet have details as to what this will look like).

As it turns out, this is a pretty pointless move from a public-health standpoint, but it can still tell us something interesting about how governments respond to a fearful populace.

During a segment on the screening program on yesterday’s Morning Edition, reporter Anders Kelto interviewed Larry Gostin, a global health professor at Georgetown. “Let’s not have the false impression that this is a tried-and-true method and it’s gonna keep Ebola out of the United States — it’s just not the case,” said Gostin. There’s little evidence such screening would actually detect Ebola patients, he explained.

It raises an obvious question: Why, then, is the government instituting this policy? Gostin’s response:

[People who are scared] insist to their government, “Do something. It doesn’t matter what it is — show us that you’re doing something. Tell us that we have no risk.” And governments, even if they know better, will sometimes respond to that political outcry. They’re under a lot of pressure to do something, [to] make the public feel reassured even if it really doesn’t make them safer.

Remember that Ebola just doesn’t appear to be a major threat to the U.S.— none of the factors that turned it into a West African pandemic are present here. That doesn’t mean people aren’t freaking out, though — and understandably so given how horrific a disease this is. So how does the government respond? Um, we’ll screen people at airports! Yeah! Which leads to an odd situation in which the government wins political points for taking ineffectual action against an imaginary threat.

Odd, yes, but not particularly uncommon. Think of all the 9/11 TSA reforms that people love to gripe about. Was taking off our shoes going to provide any sort of meaningful defense against the next Al Qaeda plot? Probably not (just ask the administrators at the many, many top-tier airports around the world that did not enact these measures). But even as we complained and struggled to bend over and get our footwear off, it made us feel like the authorities were responsive to our fears. At a time of great uncertainty, that was important.

The same logic applies here. As human beings, we derive a real psychological benefit from tangible evidence that the people charged with protecting us are doing a vigilant job — even when the substance of the action in question is questionable. So thank you, government, for soothing our misplaced Ebola fears in a highly visible but ultimately ineffectual way. Or something?