A few weeks ago, the word was temporary. Now we are hearing indefinite. America’s recently unemployed subjects under house arrest can be forgiven for starting to wonder from behind their bootlegged face-masks: If politicians and the media continue to clamor for increasingly draconian measures (including, in the case of EWTN White House correspondent Owen Jensen, a serious suggestion that the federal government shut down all grocery stores), which aspects of our brave new quarantined world might cast a permanent shade over the torch of American liberty?
One might argue this is a callous question to voice while our neighbors are dying and our hospitals are running out of ventilators. My former college chaplain is among those who succumbed to COVID-19 related complications, and my 7-year-old son, who suffers from asthma, is considered high risk. Yet I maintain that ask we must—because if not now, when? History is rife with examples of emergencies begetting tyranny, and it is safe to assume the tyrants who rise from the crippled aftermath of this nationwide panic will have an even lower threshold for questions.
If tyranny seems a stretch, consider that at the same moment lawmakers began openly deliberating which civil liberties to cancel for the sake of the coronavirus war effort, Congress was hard at work reauthorizing some of the most onerous provisions of a previous overreaction to a foreign threat—the Orwellian “Patriot Act.” We should have heeded the warning and taken a breather before going full Adrian Monk Versus The Apocalypse.
To be sure, COVID-19 is a real threat. Then again, so was the Taliban. Yet, who among of us imagined on September 11, 2001, that our nation’s collective—and largely reasonable—fear of terrorists would lead to vast civil, military, and geopolitical paradigm shifts leagues beyond dropping some bunker busters on a few bearded Islamists?
In the present crisis, state governors assure us our stay-at-home measures are temporary and necessary. Many Americans agree—and they may be correct. But did we pause to consider how readily many of us embraced temporary and necessary changes in the days, weeks, months and years following September 11, only to ultimately regret significant aspects of our national defense efforts? Nearly two decades after that initial emergency, our country remains at perpetual war with various Middle Eastern factions. We still subject 5-year-old boys and wheelchair-bound seniors to invasive searches at TSA airport security checkpoints. Guantanamo Bay still indefinitely holds prisoners without trial. And thanks in large part to the Patriot Act, federal agencies have retained broad powers to spy on American citizens without judicial oversight. Meanwhile, the WMD’s we hunted under every grain of Iraqi sand turned out to be a sort of reverse psychology bluff, and George W. Bush’s grand vision of a Middle Eastern populace ready to take up the cause of Western democratic principles—if we just gave them a little nudge—failed to materialize.
How do our 9/11 blunders relate to the pandemic? For starters, by how the experts overstate the threat and then follow up that threat with misinformation. The projected death toll has dropped precipitously, from millions to hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands. One moment, the coronavirus droplets are too heavy to be airborne. The next moment, the air we breathe is a murderous mist of Wuhan viral invaders. We were told masks are useless and we should therefore give ours away to doctors, for whom the masks are not useless. While we were still trying to wrap our brains around that seeming contradiction, the narrative suddenly reversed. Now we are reprimanded if we step across our property line without looking like a train robber or Batman villain.
Meanwhile, the actual numbers of sick and dead are still being compared to China’s unbelievably low death toll, even though that country’s lack of honesty and transparency are what caused this international crisis in the first place. What’s worse, the U.S. numbers fail to differentiate between those who died from COVID-19 and those who were merely COVID-19 infected but actually died of something else. If a critic points out that, even at face value, the deaths are only moderately significant in terms of the overall U.S. mortality rate, and that the dreaded curve is far less frightening when charted as a percentage of the total population, that critic is shouted down as a cruel, heartless person who values economics over human life. As the talking point goes, “If we can save just one life.” But government isn’t in the business of saving just one life, because laws don’t affect just one person. We don’t ban driving to save just one unfortunate pedestrian. We don’t ban baseball to save just one fan who takes a fatal foul to the head. The statistical context matters.
While the changing face mask recommendations might be plausibly dismissed as an honest shift of opinion, one error far more difficult to justify is the reprehensible misinformation campaign waged against hydroxychloroquine. As soon as President Trump let slip that the drug had shown some promise as a potential coronavirus treatment, the media—for the sole motivation of discrediting Trump—began printing scare stories about the horrors of this exotic new chemical. Rather than do their due diligence and emphasize that hydroxychloroquine is a common anti-malarial prescribed like candy to international travelers, the news networks chose to spin a yarn about how the President’s public address caused a COVID-19 patient to ingest fish tank cleaner and die. The press’s irresponsible propaganda led to real world consequences. Some state governors responded by banning the drug, though no alternative treatment for COVID-19 patients yet existed, and though the FDA approved the drug for off-label “compassionate” use.
This shocking assault on Americans’ freedom to pursue reasonable treatment options hints at a broader threat of regulative overreach. A “state of emergency” declaration gives governors godlike powers, yet many of the COVID-19 declarations were made, not in response to an existing emergency, but rather in anticipation of a statistically projected emergency. If “projected emergency” is the standard by which such powers are deemed valid, what stops governors from hiring statisticians to concoct mathematical justifications for perpetual emergency powers? And what exactly are those powers? The governors themselves don’t seem to really know. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided he could threaten to permanently close churches that violate his shutdown order. In California and North Carolina, the police felt empowered to infringe on the free speech rights of pro-life protesters by arresting them, even though the protesters were careful to meticulously abide by their states’ social distancing restrictions. And on public roads within our once freedom-loving United States of America, drivers are being stopped at police checkpoints without reasonable suspicion and forced to prove they are traveling for an “essential” purpose (as unilaterally defined by the governor).
If the media was not so distracted by its grudge against Donald Trump, it might muster enough curiosity to question the propriety of a Commander in Chief invoking wartime powers in a time of peace. Is it legal? Has it been done before? Is this approach ripe for abuse? If the President changes his mind about only using these powers when absolutely necessary, will businesses have any recourse? These are the questions the White House press corp should be asking upways and sideways. Instead, they fall back on the same old tabloid distractions such as the racial disparities in infection rates, as if a truly equal society must guarantee equal numbers of plague victims among all skin color groups.
The pandemic will, of course, pass. But what if it returns? What if the only effect of our stay-at-home orders and the shutdown of “non-essential” businesses is to delay the full outbreak until the fall? Do we lose our freedoms again? Does a lesser form of quarantine become a regular part of our annual flu season? A vaccine may make these questions moot—but it also raises new ones. Can we trust the pharmaceutical companies—the same ones that currently seem to be waging their own smear campaign against alternative treatment options—to offer the vaccine, not force it on us? If the manufacturers produce a combination COVID-19 MMR vaccine, will families be able to opt out for religious, medical, or philosophical reasons? Imagine trying to explain to your child’s school and pediatrician that your family’s genetic sensitivity to metals puts your child at risk of a vaccine-induced cytokine storm—the same syndrome responsible for many COVID-19 deaths. As a parent of children with said genetic sensitivity, I can confidently predict from experience that many people won’t listen. “Herd immunity” trumps your child’s best interest.
We need to fight the virus. We need to take precautions. But we also need to proceed with the self-awareness that today’s fear-driven actions might become tomorrow’s irreversible regrets. We must never vilify those who merely question whether the chosen way is the best way, and we must never surrender our liberties without considering the legal, moral, cultural, and psychological ramifications. What a tragedy it would be if we survived the virus, only to emerge into a future bereft, at our own doing, of our right to free speech, to religion, to due process, and to stepping outside our front door.
Put another way, we need more than just a plan to beat the coronavirus. We also need a plan to move on from this “war” and emerge on the other side, greeted by a functioning, thriving America that resembles the country we love.
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The featured image is courtesy of Unsplash.