I have never had ebola, though I did spend one Thanksgiving on the floor of a bathroom in the most expensive hotel in all of Laos. I threw up so many times that creating a little nest of exceptionally high-thread-count pillows under the sink was, if nothing else, more expedient than walking back and forth between the bed and the bathroom. Properly speaking, this was Thanksgiving eve: On Thanksgiving morning, my then-boyfriend and I took a bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, the capital city. By the time we got there, I was, for the most part, better, and I remember watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while eating as much as I could of a slice of apple pie from Joma. I still remember telling my ex-boyfriend (as I had on many, many other occasions) that if it came down to it, my precious blue passport would save us. This was relative to his South African passport (and, less helpful to my argument, his Belgian one, too.) That is an incredibly powerful feeling: If the chips are down, Uncle Sam (also: Rocky, Rambo, Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now,” etc.) will back me up.
I understand the fear behind plague, in the general sense. I’m writing this from Paris, which was named by at least one expert as the city most likely to claim the first non-African case of ebola, thanks to the many transport links between here and West Africa—a relic of the country’s colonial past and a bit of Shakespearean-level pushback played out centuries after the event. Still: I’m going to bet I wasn’t the only American in tears (specifically: “of pride”) when I read that the two Americans infected with ebola would be brought home for treatment. I absolutely believe that Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol are American heroes. I want to be a citizen of a country that looks out for its own. (I’m leaving aside the question of how much a country should look out for everyone else—to the best of its ability, I’d say.)
I believe in the idea that we take care of each other: I believe in fire departments. I believe that if we get lost while hiking, someone will come rescue us. I believe that part of my health insurance premiums will go to people who have spent a lifetime doing things that are terrible for their bodies. And I believe that if I travel outside our borders, and get myself into what I will euphemistically term a “scrape,” my government will notice, and care, and act.
Clearly this was naive, but I was astounded to realize that this is a controversial position. “People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences,” opines Donald Trump. What’s interesting for me is that Brantley and Writebol are essentially unimpeachable, character-wise: medical professionals who’ve risked their own lives to save others. I can only imagine what he would have said had the two Americans in peril been scofflaws or scammers. Some variation of “Kill them now, throw away the bodies,” I suspect.
Reading through the shockingly long list of tweets from Trump’s supporters, I found that what surprised me wasn’t the level of ignorance about how ebola is transmitted, or the level of resulting paranoia, but the schadenfreude, the “That’s what you get for going to Africa.” It’s a curse cast against all travelers, a sense that once you leave the country, that’s it; you’re on your own. I cannot help but think that—as in the case of much schadenfreude—this sentiment is fueled as much by jealousy and covetousness as it is by fear and willful callowness. Many people want to travel, and to make the world “a better place,” like Brantley and Writebol were doing. (Say what you want about the religious directive of a mission—if they’re treating ebola patients, they’re making the world a better place). Most people don’t have the courage to do either. I think that the Brantley/Writebol situation writes this in large print: They were brave when you were not—and that realization is corrosive. It corrodes the heart, mind, and spirit, so that when you hear of their peril, you say: “I was right all along: That’s what you get.” And you tweet about how Donald Trump is right, because you want to believe, in your heart of hearts, that you were, in fact, right all along: that the world is a scary place, that good people are abandoned, that it’s every bit as horrible as you feared it would be. Because if the story has a happy ending, it means that you could have been brave, too, and seen the world, and been a hero, but you weren’t. How much easier is it to cast these defenseless Americans to their deaths on Twitter?