Paul Greenberg

Ebola isn't the only plague in this troubled world. Another one is called hysteria, and it's just shown up in little Harrison, Arkansas -- which is in the most picturesque part of the state, up in the Ozarks. It's got mountains, it's got streams, it's got forests -- and the nicest, most welcoming people. Ordinarily. But now the town has come down with a bad case of the jitters. And it sounds just about beside itself. ("Harrison tells Ghana group: Don't come/ City cites Ebola fears..."--Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 24, 2014.)

So a group of visitors from a major country in West Africa invited to Arkansas through Sister Cities International has been told to stay away, at least for now. Until the fever abates. No, not Ebola but the fever known as ravening fear, which, as always, is fueled by rumor and agitation. And to think, they call Africa the dark continent.

Never mind that our visitors may already have had their flu shots and paid for their air tickets, and could be waiting to leave with visas in hand to see America for themselves -- enlightened, hospitable, scientifically advanced America. Naturally these guests would be fully screened, like any others entering the country legally and properly.

As it happens, Ebola can only be contracted from the blood or body fluids of people already showing signs of infection. Or from too close contact with the dead. But it turns out that Africa isn't the only place where superstition can overrule science

Perhaps the saddest thing about this outbreak of sheer fear in a nice little town is that it seems to have panicked the very people and institutions that should be a source of calm and reassurance when a community comes down with the heebie-jeebies. Reputable institutions like the local hospital, college and public school district, all of which have backed out of plans to welcome these visitors.

Their actions spoke louder than the sensible words of Harrison's mayor, who diagnosed the real disease threatening Harrison: "It's hysteria in my book. It's hysteria that's built up, and it's not based on fact." The mayor sounds very much alone, like anyone who keeps his head while others all about him are losing theirs.

Or as an American president facing a different kind of hysteria in a different time as a different kind of panic swept the country described this fast-spreading malady -- "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror..."--Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933. Like the mayor of Harrison, Arkansas, today, FDR was trying to provide leadership instead of adding to the panic.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.