Ebola was arguably the worst epidemic in the U.S. since the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s, not because the disease struck more than a handful of people – it did not -- but because of the panic that seized the nation at the mere mention of the word. A Texas community college sent out rejection letters to applicants from Nigeria, because some cases of Ebola had been reported there. An elementary teacher in Maine was placed on administrative leave after attending an education conference in Dallas, where several Ebola patients had been treated. Anyone connected with the African continent in any way was suspected of being a potential carrier of the disease. Political leaders called for mandatory quarantining of anyone returning from the West African nations where the outbreak occurred, if not halting travel there altogether. President Obama was accused of downplaying the seriousness of the disease, which at the time accounted for fewer than a dozen cases in the entire country.
And then, almost as swiftly as it arrived, Ebola disappeared from the headlines – no more dire forecasts of global pandemics, no stories about brave medical workers who came down with the disease, no panicked reactions from communities far removed from the contagion, no grandstanding by politicians anxious to exploit the situation. Granted, the disease continued to ravage West Africa, but there were no new cases in the U.S. The Ebola panic -- full of sound and fury, signifying what exactly? -- had become yesterday’s news.
Not long after graduating from college, my wife got a job at a repository for some of the oldest news anywhere. She worked at the Yale Babylonian Collection, which housed documents and artifacts from Near Eastern civilizations dating back more than 5,000 years. The collection, based on a donation of cuneiform tablets from J.P. Morgan more than a century ago, is one of the largest of its kind in the world. Its web site notes that the materials found there include “every genre, type, and period of ancient Mesopotamian writing, such as commemorative inscriptions, scholarly treatises, letters and business documents, administrative accounts, and literature in poetry and prose, in Akkadian, Sumerian, and Hittite.” Along with scientific treatises, epic poems and a clay tablet depicting the Pythagorean theorem more than a thousand years before Pythagoras, the materials touch on many aspects of daily life in the ancient world, including such “news” items as royal proclamations, marriage agreements and divorce decrees. The remnants of one of the most advanced and powerful civilizations in the world are now housed in a few rooms at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library.
It is not difficult to imagine that remnants of our civilization will one day be housed in a few rooms in some equivalent repository in millennia to come. We must assume that most of the paper, film and videotape records of our era will have long since crumbled to dust. Nor is it safe to assume that digital information will remain intact. Data stored on magnetic tape or disk drives may degrade over time or become unreadable due to obsolete hardware or software. Future civilizations may find better ways to preserve digital information, but that assumes they are more technologically advanced than we are. A thermonuclear war, climate catastrophe or even an actual global pandemic could put us back into a new dark age, and archivists in the coming epoch might not have the technological wherewithal to decipher the records of our era. As it is, only a fraction of the material stored in the Babylonian Collection and similar repositories has been translated because there are comparatively few scholars with the requisite training.
God has put eternity in our hearts, as the Book of Ecclesiastes tell us, yet nature and circumstance conspire at every turn to remove all traces of our existence from the face of the earth. The author of Ecclesiastes was certainly aware of this. Tradition holds that he was King Solomon, the wisest of Israel’s monarchs. Writing before there was any firm sense of an afterlife among ancient Israelites, he warned that our frantic effort to leave a mark upon the world was mere “vanity and a striving after wind” in light of our inevitable end. There were, of course, no newspapers in those days, yet Solomon surely understood we are all destined to become yesterday’s news, himself included. The irony is that while Solomon did not survive, his words live on.