Mar 6, 2020Rob Loggia
With the COVID19 virus threatening most of the world, the debate about how best to respond is raging in the public space. The answers are by no means settled questions, but like any active threat these could be life and death questions for many people. Some of this discussion has been alarming and reminds me of some of the other calamities we have faced as a nation, and how we ultimately responded to them. How will this one end, I wonder?
There is not much I can remember from my elementary school days through the haze of the 30 long years since. I remember being assembled in the school auditorium to watch the Challenger launch in 1986, and being sent back to our classrooms with the teacher in tears after it exploded. I remember the smell of the hallways, a strange mix of rubber mats and antiseptic cleaner that, to this day, I have not encountered elsewhere. Mostly I just recall not liking being told what to do all the time.
A few other notable memories have stuck with me. One of them is the day one of my classmates asked a question about AIDS. I have a vague sense that the question itself was unwelcome, though I do not remember the details. Nonetheless some discussion did occur, because one of my other classmates asked another question, and I will never forget the answer. What this classmate of mine wanted to know was why we didn't just arrest everyone that had AIDS to stop it from spreading. A simplification, to be sure, from a young mind earnestly wanting to know. I remember the answer coming back quickly; the teacher may have even snapped at the student:
"Because this is America, and we don't do that kind of thing here."
Sage words. This teacher captured, in one sentence, the essence of what was intended to be a founding principle of the United States and a guiding light for future generations. America was meant to be a nation where the government bows before the citizen, where natural rights and civil liberties supersede temporary safety and even enduring security. In short, "the land of the free, the home of the brave."
Growing up and studying history, I learned that we, as Americans, didn't always adhere to these principles very well. Times of real or imagined peril cause people to lose sight of principles, and we have been no exception. The Red Scare reign of terror presided over by Senator McCarthy is a classic example of at least some Americans losing the script. So is the internment of Japanese Americans, instigated by a President that unironically told the American people that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Indeed. But he can hardly be blamed. After all, he had the example of the American Civil War, a period where the fundamental legal right of Habeas Corpus was suspended and where anti-draft demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the military. Even the founders couldn't get it right, codifying blatently unjust racist exceptions to natural rights into our founding documents as they did.
Some people like to use these examples as evidence that the principle itself is flawed. If our founders couldn't even get it right, then maybe it is wrong to believe in these things. They are a myth. I reject that kind of thinking, as we all should. But before we're too hard on our predecessors for failing to live up to the American ethos, we should consider how well we're living up to it today. And putting aside the history book, I've lived through enough to tell me that we're doing worse at it, and not better, than our predecessors. One can dismiss a poor reaction as a moment of weakness. But in my lifetime, I have witnessed many Americans adopt cowardice and fear as a lifestyle. The response to COVID19 is just the latest example.
In an authoritarian dictatorship, little or no justification is required for brutality. In an open society, such tactics must be justified, and one of the only things that will work is a corresponding level of fear in the population. Civil liberties were greatly curtailed after 9/11, despite President Bush telling Americans that we must not allow the terrorists to win by allowing them to alter our way of life. Monstrosities like the Patriot Act were supported by many Americans only because they gave into fear. Their fear of such a thing happening again overpowered any principles they might have had.
The War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the War on Crime, and now the War on Disease... all rooted in fear, some of it justified. What is not justified, what is never justified, is allowing this fear to devolve into cowardice, the moral equivalent of saying "Shoot him if you have to shoot someone and even if he doesn't deserve it, just don't shoot me." Supporting measures that move us closer towards being a police state. And how many of these people have the nerve to wrap themselves in the flag while they're supporting these things - the antithesis of what the flag is meant to represent.
And now with COVID19 we are seeing it again. People - in many cases the very same people - that have been flinging shit for two years at President Trump on the grounds that he is a latent dictator looking to seize power and rule like a fascist are now flinging shit at him for not responding like said authoritarian fascist to this threat. A cautious, measured response IS the expected American response to crisis. Not mania. Not boots and bullets.
Many of my fellow Americans seem to be on the cusp of losing the script entirely. I've seen articles praising the Chinese response to the disease and asking why we don't do that here.
"Because this is America, and we don't do that kind of thing here."
We don't send vans to the homes of Americans and forcibly cart them away to an internment center. We don't weld people into buildings. We don't arrest people for being sick. And because we are an armed population, such efforts would be difficult even if enough people were convinced to try them. Try duplicating China's response here. Some of it will succeed, but I can promise you that at least some of your officials will be returning with bullets in them. As it should be.
Unfortunately, we have reached a point where some people would prefer this to an increased chance of catching a disease. People who have become so afraid of anything bad potentially happening to them, ever, that they prefer life in a prison to freedom. And with the support of politicians, who love power and don't need much prodding, they are slowly undertaking to change the face of our nation. To put out that light that was intended to shine as an example for all the world.
It is reasonable to be afraid of getting sick. I have older and younger people that I care deeply for, and I don't want to see them get sick, and potentially die. I'm a heavy smoker in his 40's, so I'm not exactly low risk either. Taking precautions is reasonable. Preparing for outages is reasonable, so reasonable that one could ask why it took something like this for someone to be prepared for disruptions. After all, not all emergencies are announced in advance.
But to simply freak out? To call for the transformation of our society into something other than what it was meant to be? To support even more restrictions, and draconian authority, by the government over the natural rights of Americans? Just so you can be safe, secure? Even if that safety is ultimaly an illusion? Because it is. All safety is an illusion, ready to be shattered at any moment by the icy hand of chance. No, this kind of frightened reasoning is unbefitting of an American citizen. People promoting safety at the expense of all else should be called by the rest of us what they are: cowards.
This may seem harsh but consider all that they would destroy - have destroyed - in service to their morbid fears. These people are a threat to all of us, a threat to what little freedom we still enjoy - what freedom they have left us with. Call them out, people, while we still have anything left to protect.