It’s been quite a year: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Ebola and the Republican Party taking control of the U.S. Senate. Oh, and unstoppable lava slowly consuming Hawaii. But it’s awards season, and not too soon to consider our person of the year.
There’s the too-good-to-be-true teenaged Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai, who’s still a bit young to be auditioning for the role of Mother Theresa but has plenty of Western backing. And there’s Vladimir Putin, the man everyone loves to hate, but who plays the best political poker on the planet. My vote, though, goes to Kaci Hickox.
Hickox, as you may recall, was the nurse who, upon returning from volunteer service in Ebola-stricken Sierra Leone, was promptly quarantined in a bare tent with a port-a-potty by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has remarkably avoided confinement himself over Bridgegate and a slew of other merry doings.
Christie, along with New York’s equally opportunistic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, decided to protect the citizens of the Empire and Garden states by not only quarantining but also incarcerating medical workers who had ministered to Ebola victims.
Hickox didn’t expect a medal for her work. Being treated not merely like a criminal, however, but used as a political prop by a sleazebag politician for carrying out the humanitarian work that governments and health agencies had shirked, was a little over the top for her. She had an iPhone, which she’d insisted on taking into the tent, and she used it.
That wasn’t part of the plan. Our elected lords and masters have become so accustomed to humble submission — decades in jail for marijuana possession, feeling up little old ladies at airports for hidden bombs (why not?) — that the newest pariah class, medical volunteers, was expected to meekly fall in line, even though government health experts said that isolating asymptomatic aid workers was unnecessary and, well, maybe a bit hysterical.
Hickox, though, is made of sterner stuff than most. She called CNN, declaring that her incarceration was wholly ungrounded in medical science and “completely unacceptable” to her as an American citizen.
The governor’s office responded that she had no cause for complaint, since she was being provided with full Internet access and offered the best restaurant take-out food available. What red-blooded American wouldn’t trade a little freedom for that?
Christie’s justification for isolating Hickox was that she had appeared “obviously ill” to him. It wasn’t the best tack to take with Hickox, a registered nurse. She said she felt fine. She wondered where the governor had come up with his diagnosis: “First of all,” she said, “I don’t think he’s a doctor. And secondly, he’s never laid eyes on me.”
Besides, “obviously ill” wasn’t a medical description she was familiar with. Was the governor suggesting that she had the Ebola virus? If not, what was she “obviously ill” with?
Governor Smackdown doesn’t usually get this kind of backtalk. Hickox threatened to go to court and got her release from Jersey justice. She was ordered back to her home in northern Maine, however, and instructed to wait out the remainder of her 21-day quarantine by that state’s governor, a certain Paul LePage.
This didn’t suit her either, so she decided to take a bike ride with her partner, Ted Wilbur. Naturally, the press tagged along. Hickox said again that she felt fine, and was enjoying the air of her great and free country.
After all, 21 days cooped up between four walls, even her own four, wasn’t conducive to anyone’s health and well-being. The unspoken accusation was clear: Did the state actually want to make her sick?
Now, self-monitoring is a reasonable precaution for anyone who’s been among Ebola patients. That was simply in Hickox’s self-interest, as well as the interest of others. And the courts have given considerable latitude to state authorities to take public health measures, including quarantine.
Since quarantine is a severe restriction on personal liberty, however, it needs very clear and specific medical justification: the Soviet Union had notoriously punished political dissidents by putting them under psychiatric confinement, often doping them up to make them ill in fact.
(We do things the other way around, giving tranquilizers to schizophrenic prisoners to make them look well enough to be executed.)
Quarantine that has no medical basis is arbitrary imprisonment. In Hickox’s case, it was punishment for doing good. That was only the beginning, though. Confining Hickox was an act of political grandstanding on the part of two crapulous politicians seeking to exploit the hysteria fanned by the federal government’s astoundingly ill-prepared and incompetent response to a public health debacle. Sound familiar?
On 9/11 we were treated to a domestic Pearl Harbor by a government completely asleep at the switch, which reacted by flinging thousands of people into detention that often lasted months without charge or hearing. Detention is our default option in any emergency, real or fabricated. It’s part of the reason why we have more people in our prisons than anywhere else in the world, and also why we are the most spied-upon people on earth.
And we take it, too, because if there’s one good job the government has done, it is to make us the most fearful people on the planet as well.
That’s what Kaci Hickox stood up to. She was damned if she was going to be kept in a cage, or cooped up indoors for no good reason. She didn’t like three governors telling her what to do. She didn’t want any politician getting in her face. She wasn’t a survivalist with a rifle. She was a citizen standing her ground — and it’s been a long time since one was spotted.
It’s not clear as of this writing what the upshot of Hickox’s story will be. She and her partner have received support from some members of her small community but also death threats from around the state. Fear goes deep in our land, and the violence that goes with it.
So, Hickox now talks of leaving Maine and resettling elsewhere. Since New Englanders are, or were, notable for their independent streak, it’s a little disappointing that the Pine Tree State doesn’t recognize pioneer spirit when it sees it. But I think Hickox has had a pretty good year.
She’s tried to save human lives in one of the poorest, most beleaguered nations on earth, and to affirm liberty in the wealthiest and most powerful one. She did the first job because it needed to be done, and the second because she didn’t like being locked up as a political prop for a loudmouthed buffoon.
Revolutions have been started for less, and, since Thomas Jefferson once remarked that the country should have one every 10 years or so, I might note that we’re about 200 years overdue. Whether we get one or not (and I’m not talking about the Tea Party here), it’s nice to see a little of the backbone the country was built on. Thanks, Kaci.
Robert Zaller is a history professor at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]