I was listening to a story on National Public Radio about the latest development in the case of Andrew Speaker, the tuberculosis patient who is presently among the world’s least popular airline passengers. And what came to mind was: Lord Jim.
Bear with me.
In Joseph Conrad’s novel, Jim is a mariner who appears to face a dire choice. He can die a hero aboard a sinking ship full of helpless passengers or he can abandon ship with the other officers. He abandons the ship, but it fails to sink and hence his shameful behavior is revealed.
Speaker made a choice that is a bit like that in nature, though not degree. He was in Europe on his honeymoon when the Centers for Disease Control contacted him and told him not to fly because he was believed to have a severe and very dangerous form of tuberculosis. He flew anyway, potentially exposing dozens of strangers to a deadly disease. He said at the time that he feared he might die in Europe if he were quarantined there.
Turns out, he has a slightly less severe and somewhat less dangerous form of tuberculosis. So anybody he might have infected is less likely to end up dead. (The CDC points out that its advice against flying would have been the same, anyway.)
Speaker certainly didn’t mean to harm anyone. But he put strangers at risk to protect himself.
Would any of us have acted differently? We probably will never have to find out. That was kind of Joseph Conrad’s point. Jim wasn’t a bad man. He just wasn’t the hero he thought he was, or as selfless as others expected him to be.
After his new diagnosis, Speaker suggested in a news conference that the CDC ruined his reputation. But I think he ruined it himself.