Linguistic habits make strange thoughts seem normal. When we go to the grocery store, we shop for cuts of meat, not pieces of flesh. We’re not perverse flesh eaters.
Likewise, we are not warmongers. Yet, language gives us away from time to time, if we take notice, which is rare. We routinely structure our thoughts about the world with fighting words. Couples don’t argue; they fight. We declare war on poverty, on crime, on illegal drugs, on just about any problem that comes to our attention. Our police forces are militarized.
9/11 triggered the ubiquitous war on terror. Hijacking commercial airplanes and flying them into buildings wasn’t just a heinous crime. Even if it were, we fight wars on crime. After 9/11—but really well before—everything was a national security issue. President Bush spoke not only about homeland security but also border security, economic security, health security, retirement security, energy security, and more. There is no conceptual limit to the purview of the National Security Agency. NSA might monitor anyone saying anything.
So we’re not surprised when our government responds to a rogue virus as if it is an invading army. It makes sense to fight a war on Ebola. When the disease threatens to invade our homeland, we send troops to its source in West Africa; boots on the ground reassure us.
Tom Engelhardt doesn’t think sending the army is reassuring. In his view, militarizing the Ebola crisis is yet another manifestation of national-security nonsense: “In his initial move to contain Ebola, President Obama sent in the U.S. military, an organization as ill equipped to deal with a pandemic disease as it was to deal with ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan or Iraq.” Three thousand soldiers were sent to Liberia in what the media called an “Ebola Surge.”
Karen Greenberg also isn’t reassured. She insists that “Ebola is a disease with a medical etiology and scientific remedies,” not a “sentient enemy.” Terror-war thinking mistakes Ebola for a dark and alien enemy that should be fought with the tactics of surveillance, containment, quarantine, and secrecy:
Only by trusting our medical professionals will we avoid turning the campaign against Ebola over to the influence of the security state. And only by refusing to militarize the potential crisis, as so many others were in the post-9/11 era, will we avoid the usual set of ensuing disasters. The key thing here is to keep the Ebola struggle a primarily civilian one.
Greenberg is probably right, but the larger implication of militarizing disease is that this strange war-on-Ebola metaphor should serve notice on other habitual constructions that make and maintain war culture.