With a new week, and the possibility of additional Ebola patients, Americans — or at least American politicians — have an urgent need: someone to blame. After all, while more than 4,000 Africans dying of Ebola was not enough to grab our attention, two infected nurses in the United States is a full-fledged crisis.
To save readers from viewing hours of repetitive cable television and political advertising, I assembled a handy list of villains proposed (or soon to be proposed) by talking heads of the left and right. Feel free to select one or more.
• President Obama, for caring about Africans more than he cares about us.
• Republicans, for starving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of funds so it could not prepare for Ebola.
• Michelle Obama, for tricking the CDC into promoting exercise and healthy eating instead of preparing for Ebola.
• Republicans, for starving the National Institutes of Health of funds so that it could not discover a cure for Ebola.
• The NIH, for squandering the ample funds generously appropriated by Republicans on lazy bureaucrats.
• Democrats and Republicans, for forcing NIH to spend money on illnesses with well-organized constituencies (e.g., cancer) and not in areas with the most potential return on investment.
• Sierra Leoneans.
• Republicans, for denigrating Washington so regularly that good people don’t want to serve in government.
• Democrats, for coddling government unions that drive good people out of government with mindless anti-meritocracy.
• Obama, for not standing taller against denigration of government service or coddling of government unions.
• The World Health Organization, for missing the ball as the epidemic bloomed.
• Obama, for not listening to the WHO’s warnings on Ebola.
• The National Rifle Association, for opposing a nominee for surgeon general because he wanted to reduce gun violence.
• Congress, for taking orders from the NRA.
• CDC Director Thomas Frieden, for not keeping that nurse off that airplane.
• NIH official Anthony Fauci, for not telling Frieden to keep that nurse off that airplane.
• Obama, for not at least banning dogs with Ebola from airplanes (if dogs can catch Ebola).
• Ron Klain. He was appointed Ebola czar Friday. Why hasn’t he solved the problem yet?
So far, thank goodness, no one has died after contracting Ebola in the United States. Before this outbreak is contained, some people may. Hopefully along the way we will learn to better prepare for epidemics so as to respond more nimbly next time. At its best, the process of identifying villains can promote that learning and improvement. Demanding accountability in a democracy can be ugly, but it’s essential.
At the same time, as politicians called for Frieden’s head last week, I found myself thinking about Rick Atkinson’s incomparable trilogy on the U.S. military in Europe during World War II. As the Allies move from North Africa to Italy and finally to France, their story is one of heroism and brilliant strategy but also unthinkable blunders, squandered lives and lessons painfully learned or inexcusably ignored.
But there were no congressional hearings two weeks into the war demanding Eisenhower’s resignation.
I asked Atkinson whether censorship could explain the difference or whether something more fundamental has changed.
“Censorship didn’t hide bad news but only delayed it,” he told me. “Inevitably, the ugly truth would out, of calamity at Kasserine [Pass], or near debacle at Salerno, or a failed gambit at Anzio, or huge casualties at [Monte] Cassino. There was no censoring the casualty lists.
“I do think the delay helped make bad news more palatable because it was quickly eclipsed by other news, generally trending good in World War II,” he added. “To your larger point, I think the sense of unity, of common goals, of minimized partisanship helped brace people against setbacks.”
What’s striking in the present case is how the absence of that sense of unity feeds on itself. Obama shouldn’t have suggested that Ebola was unlikely to reach America, Frieden shouldn’t have assured us every hospital would be ready on Day One.
But in a climate so unforgiving, so unwilling to accept that mistakes will be made and should be learned from, it’s understandable that leaders trap themselves into promising more than they can deliver.
A desire for accountability does not have to preclude a certain generosity of spirit, or some empathy for those who are performing public service. We seem to have forgotten that.
Fred Hiatt is editorial page editor for The Washington Post.