There’s something to be said for a book that takes the bewildering cacophony of American approaches to the pandemic and tries to bring some clarity to how we got here ... Witt, a legal historian at Yale, offers a brisk guide ... Witt constructs his argument carefully, rarely allowing himself a rhetorical flourish, but the conclusion he arrives at is devastating.
Mr. Witt ranges widely, roping together into the Quarantinist State such disparate examples as sensible colonial-era quarantines for overseas arrivals, abominable anti-Chinese laws of the early 20th century, and 'America’s prison archipelago' today. Pandemics begin to seem little more than a loose organizing principle for Mr. Witt’s laundry lists of policy complaints ... Despite the political bent to the book’s second half, Mr. Witt criticizes the 'hyper-partisanship' of today’s controversies—symptoms of which, in his analysis, seem to present only among Republicans ... Politics aside, Mr. Witt’s history of pandemics and civil liberties illustrates a crucial constitutional challenge ... American Contagions leaves too many crucial questions unanswered, sometimes even unasked.
In a book that’s both timely, considering the pandemic, and remarkably speedy, considering that it began as a spring 2020 Yale Law School class, Bancroft Prize winner Witt looks at the sometimes contending, sometimes cooperating forces of public interest and private liberty in times of epidemic disease ... Contrarians and the civic-minded alike will find Witt’s legal survey a fascinating resource.