10/21/2014 04:48 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

What Ebola Tells Us About Ferguson and ISIS

What does Ebola have to do with Ferguson and ISIS? Plenty. All three crises demonstrate the futility of erecting borders, literally and figuratively. Like a virus, animus of any kind -- whether based on race or politics or simply emotion -- can spread like wildfire. Divisions of "us" vs "them" are not just ineffective, they can also jeopardize our survival on this planet. We need an alternative way to think and be, act and relate with Others in the world. For this, we need the ancient Silk Roads (1st-15th centuries AD) and its ethos of difference without alienation.

Let me clarify: I am not politicizing the issue, as some have. At the House hearing on the Ebola virus on October 16, for example, U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) raised the spectre of ISIS members infecting themselves and traveling to the U.S. to spread the plague. Senator Johnson ignores an obvious fact: unlike kamikaze war planes from WWII Japan, there is no guarantee that the Ebola virus will stay contained to the perpetrator; once infected, and without strict protocols, carriers can pass on the virus to comrades and families alike. Nor am I succumbing to the call from governors like Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin) and Rick Perry (R-Texas) to ban all travel from West Africa. People desperate to leave will find a way -- and without being monitored for fever and other symptoms as they are now at international ports of call. Neither do I follow US Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) in questioning whether the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have done their job properly.

Instead, I'm highlighting something more profound and enduring. The triple whammy of Ebola-Ferguson-ISIS exposes a crisis in our thinking about borders and boundaries, our treatment of relations between Self and Other. Common attitudes about the crises include:

"Ebola comes from Africa. Other than prevention, it has nothing to do with us."

"Ferguson concerns race relations in Missouri, not the rest of American society."

"ISIS is a foreign policy threat in the Middle East. It bears no relation to U.S. domestic politics."

Where connections are made, these seek to prevent what's happening to others "out there" from spilling over to us "in here." Only now, when Ebola has reached the U.S., does public attention turn to long-term investments in Africa's public health system. The race riots of Newark and Detroit in 1967 and Los Angeles in 1992 are recalled primarily to consider whether similar tactics - i.e., deploying the National Guard -- should be applied to Ferguson today. And the threat of ISIS seems to justify America's drone policy, no matter how many civilians are killed. Security becomes the goal -- especially from that which seems wild, strange, and unusual.

The problem is: control is not possible. In fact, history shows that control always eludes, whether it involves pandemics, race relations, or the rise of anti-Western, anti-imperialist militants. No imperial power like Rome or China or England could keep up its walls. Nor, for that matter, has religion or ideology or science.

We have alternatives. Borders and boundaries need not stay fixed, divisive, and exclusive. The Self is not always pitted against the Other. Again, history is instructive.

The ancient Silk Roads (there wasn't just one) linked the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean, Somalia with China, and Venice with Java. But the Roads presented more than a strip of geography, or a system of barter and trade, from long ago, far away. They also produced a way of living in the present with a world richly populated by multiplicity and complexity, exchanges and flows -- of languages and religions and goods -- despite conflicts and contestations. The Roads brought together merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, and nomads, not to mention princesses, nuns, shamans, scribes, and settlers. The long, arduous, scenic, adventurous, death-stricken, awe-inspiring routes mandated interdependence, and perhaps reverence for wisdom and insight, learning from the signs and the esoteric, and a basic degree of humility and adaptability that offers a non-individualistic, non-predatory approach to life.

A distinct ethos evolved. Difference without alienation meant more than "tolerance" for differences in race/ethnicity, tribe, language, religion, lifestyle, worldview. The Silk Road ethos built on difference as a source of learning, circulation, and co-creativity. Archeological evidence reveals the intimacy of such transcendence in that final act of mortality: burial of the dead. Tomb paintings exhibit a range of aesthetic integrations, such as a pair of boots from Uzbekistan under a tunic from India worn by a face from China riding a horse from Persia. Difference did not lead to fixations on borders and boundaries, Self vs Other. Instead, difference redefined what it meant to be.

Some contest this representation of the Silk Roads. Emperors and kings, khans and sheiks warred over the Roads as much as any lucrative, commercial route today. Others caution against any talk of the Silk Roads, especially in light of the Chinese government's plan for a 21st-century "Silk Road Industrial Belt" and "Maritime Silk Road." The U.S. State Department also has a "New Silk Road" policy to assimilate states like Afghanistan and, by implication Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran, into Central Asia and Europe.

I do not dispute these claims. My focus is elsewhere: the ordinary folks who lived, travelled, and died on the Roads, not the ruling elites; an historical precedent in social relations, not geopolitics; and the circulations of learning, not hegemony. In brief, the ancients from the Silk Roads have much to teach us about what it takes to live -- and live well -- in today's complex, multicultural, and globalized world.

Overcoming bordered thinking will help with Ebola-Ferguson-ISIS today and the unmaking of such crises in the future.

L.H.M. Ling teaches International Affairs at The New School where she directs the Silk Road Research Initiative (SRRI).