The Case Against Ebola Quarantines, Respectfully Submitted

Most Americans don't trust government with Ebola. I don't trust it with my rights.

I get it: You don't trust government to contain Ebola in the United States, or to be honest about its dangers. You might be a Republican. You also don't trust Washington to be the single-payer for national health care. You'd die before government gets your guns.

Or you might be a Democrat. You get queasy at the thought of government mucking around in your telephone records, prosecuting a journalist, or waging war for oil.

Conservative or liberal, you're skeptical—with damn good reason. And yet, on Ebola, you'd allow government to curb the most basic freedom. You support mandatory quarantines. Most Americans do.

You're among the 80 percent of Americans who want travelers from West Africa to be forcibly isolated upon arrival to the United States. You trust government not to exploit or extend civil-liberty limitations like those suffered by Kaci Hickox, an extraordinary nurse who tested negative twice for Ebola since fighting the disease at its West African roots.

Are you a hypocrite? No, you're conflicted. First, the nagging incompetence of public and private institutions gives you pause about the ability of government to curb the insidious disease. Long ago, most Americans lost some measure of faith in the institutions that could be calming fears now: government, medicine, and journalism.

Second, quarantines are not illegal or unprecedented. One person's rights can be suspended for a greater good. Famously, the First Amendment doesn't apply to the person who yells "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

The "greater good" principle has been applied broadly in the heat of crises—the post-9/11 USA Patriot Act, comes to mind, along with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Many who supported those actions later regretted it.

I hope we don't regret these Ebola quarantines. Perhaps the disease has run its course in the United States. Perhaps the federal government and every one of the state governments will strike the right balance between safety and liberty. But maybe not. "This is America," President Obama said Wednesday. "We do things differently."

The fact is, we aren't doing things differently—not even Obama. As commander in chief, he has ordered quarantines for U.S. military personnel who are helping to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, despite assurances that none of them will be directly exposed to the disease.

Obama also made a tonal mistake. At a time when Americans need to hear empathy from the president, along with a consistent, credible Ebola strategy, he angrily lashed out.

"When I hear people talking about American leadership and then are promoting policies that would avoid leadership and have us running in the opposite direction and hiding under the covers, it makes me a little frustrated," Obama said in the East Room of the White House in his most extensive remarks on the crisis. "I put those on notice who think we should hide from these problems."

Obama is justifiably angry at Republicans who are shamelessly exploiting the crisis. But the president should know this isn't about him; it's about the people he's paid to serve. When he self-righteously waves his finger at GOP politicians, Obama appears to call every American favoring quarantines a chicken.

I side with the president on the policy. Quarantines should be a last resort in dire emergencies, a term I would not apply to a handful of Ebola infections and one death. An outbreak is highly unlikely, assuming government and medical officials get their acts together.

Which is where we differ, respectfully, because I understand your position. It makes perfect sense. You don't trust government with Ebola. I don't trust it with my rights.