Yesterday, The New York Times took an interesting angle on the recent, media-consuming Ebola epidemic. After continuously consulting the experts and the people on the scene, the Times decided to review the “fringe” interpretation of the tragedy in an article aptly titled, “The Ebola Conspiracy Theories.” The dominant theory, echoed in the Liberian newspaper The Daily Observer and on Chris Brown’s Twitter account, is that the epidemic is an intentional incidence of population control–making the virus itself a bioweapon intended to carryout a massive genocide.
Just to be clear: like many journalists, experts, politicians, victims and casual observers, I don’t buy into this theory. But I am a bit discouraged by the diction some have used to dismiss it–Politico even labeled it “crazy.” While a sophisticated analysis reveals that Ebola would make a poor choice for a bioweapon (it spreads inefficiently and is difficult to produce in a lab setting), generally categorizing all paranoia about population control as batty borders on the offensive. Various groups have been subjected to government-sanctioned depopulation through medical means, and you don’t have too look far back in U.S. history (let alone world history) to find them.
In colonial America, British settlers at Fort Pitt took advantage of the Native Americans’ lack of immunity to smallpox by offering the blankets and handkerchiefs of smallpox patients to visiting chiefs in 1763. Historians debate how widespread the practice of intentionally distributing smallpox-exposed materials to Native American populations was, but correspondence between British officials reveal that the intent to harm was certainly there. Said one British commander to a colonel: “You will Do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blanketts as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race.”
The United States also has a long history of controlling certain populations through forced sterilizations. As recently as the 1970s, laws at the state level allowed some medical and penal institutions to sterilize those under their care considered to have disabilities or criminal characteristics that could undesirably enter the gene pool. In 1926, this practice was deemed constitutional in the Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell. And though this seems horrific enough, some people assert that proponents of forced sterilization targeted not only the disabled and incarcerated but also racial minorities. Even today, some victims of this practice are still advocating for visibility and reparations.
So while Ebola is more than likely off the hook as a means of population control, the historical context certainly gives credence to why some fear the idea in the first place. As New Jersey City University English professor James F. Broderick told The New York Times, “Conspiracies against the powerless tend to be effective [theories] because the masses often feel that way.” And it’s important to remember that, for “the powerless,” that feeling is often pretty justified.