On Saturday, police in Kansas City “intervened” to shut down a parade of elementary school teachers. The staff of John Fiske Elementary School decided to organize the parade as a way to boost the morale of their students and encourage them in their new distance learning adventure. All of the teachers and administrators were in their own cars. There was literally no chance whatsoever of any virus being transmitted from car to car. But a spokeswoman for the police later explained, after the elicit gathering was descended upon by law enforcement, that the celebration of learning was not “necessary” or “essential.”
Two days before the Kansas City community was saved from the threat of cheerful elementary school teachers waving to children from their sedans, police in Malibu arrested a man who was caught paddle boarding in the ocean. Two boats and three additional deputies in vehicles were called to the scene of the non-essential joyride. How could a man out by himself in the Pacific possibly contract or spread the coronavirus? Nobody knows. But orders are orders, after all. And so the man was pulled out of the ocean and hauled away in handcuffs.
Not far from this harrowing scene, the San Diego sheriff’s department was giving out citations to people who’d committed the nefarious crime of “watching the sunset” on the beach. At around the same time, over on the east coast, Pennsylvania state police were pulling over and ticketing a woman who, according to the citation, was “going for a drive.” You may think that going for a drive when you’ve been locked in your home for three weeks is indeed a rather essential activity. And you may also think that there is essentially zero risk of contracting or transmitting the virus while you drive along a country road in the rural county of York, Pennsylvania. But none of that matters. The politicians have spoken. You may leave your home only for the reasons they decree.
A woman in Minnesota was recently pulled over and ticketed for two offenses: First, driving with a canceled license, which seems fair. But second, for violating her state’s stay-at-home order. She said she’d gone to Taco Bell and before that had visited her storage unit. Why should one be essential and not the other? Who knows. That is up for the politicians to decide. The point is that you can’t just go out and move around as you please. What do you think this is? A free country?
Officials in other parts of the nation have banned essential retailers from selling non-essential items like mosquito repellent. I suppose the prevention of West Nile and malaria are no longer considered essential. The mayor of Port Isabel, Texas, has decided, for whatever reason, that residents may not travel with more than two people in their vehicles. What if you’re a single parent with two kids? Well, sorry, one of your kids is out of luck. It’s not clear how this rule will be enforced, but some states have made that easier on themselves by setting up checkpoints to stop and question every car that passes through. A driver from New York who gets caught in Florida might face 60 days in jail. I should stop here to remind you that Florida and New York are places in the United States of America, not Soviet Russia.
Meanwhile, protestors outside of abortion clinics in California and North Carolina have been arrested for violating their state’s stay-at-home orders, despite the fact that they were following the protocols of social distancing, not to mention that obscure legal artifact known as the First Amendment. But the First Amendment has officially been neutralized, as the multiple pastors arrested for holding worship services have found out. All of this may seem quite oppressive and gestapo-ish, but a police chief in Colorado put those worries aside by explaining that the act of leaving your house and going outside is not a right but a “privilege” that can be revoked if it is “misused.” A prosecutor in Ohio, exploding in a fit of rage during a radio interview, said that those who defy his state’s stay-at-home order are committing “felonious assault” and if you’re guilty of that, you can “sit your butt in jail, sit there and kill yourself.”
Again, I remind you: this is the United States of America. Or at least it used to be.
Apologists for our newly established police state will tell me that states and localities have the authority to impose restrictions in an emergency. That is true, but the question of how far their authority actually goes is complicated, and in this case made even more complicated by the fact that these stay-at-home orders, in many cases, are based not on a current medical emergency in the respective state, but on models that forecast the possibility of an emergency in the future. For example, Minnesota is under a stay-at-home order despite having only 29 coronavirus deaths among a population of over 5 million. Perhaps the situation will get worse. Perhaps not. The point is that there is no current emergency in Minnesota or many of the other states currently under lockdown. There is, rather, a model that projects an emergency. And if projected emergencies can justify the effective nullification of the Bill of Rights, where is the limit? Haven’t we now granted the government the power to seize near-total control on the basis of any real or phantom threat?
And there are other problems. We don’t know that these lockdowns will actually have the effect of saving lives. It’s possible, as Dr. Fauci has admitted himself, that the virus could come roaring back to life whenever we emerge from our homes. It’s also possible that the illness came to America in November, December, or January, aboard any of the hundreds of thousands of travelers from China who poured into our country during that span. If that’s the case, then the viral horse has long since left the barn, and the lockdowns are obliterating our national economy and driving millions into ruin for minimal preventative gain. So we have, then, a series of indefinite stay-at-home orders based on dubious models, and dubious projections, with a dubious chance of success, and which often outlaw behavior that could not even plausibly put anyone at risk from the disease that may or may not, or maybe already has, become epidemic in the states where these laws have been enacted. Is that good enough to justify treating Americans like subjects in a communist dictatorship?
I would argue that nothing could ever justify such a thing. Indeed, the First and Fourth Amendments — the provisions of the Bill of Rights that seem to be having the worst time of it, recently — serve no purpose and have no reason to exist if they can be canceled or overridden whenever the government might have a specially compelling reason to do so. It is only when the government has a specially compelling reason to violate the amendments that the amendments have any function. After all, we really don’t need them during the times that the government has no interest in infringing on them. It seems that if we toss aside our right to assembly, our right to practice our religion, our right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, etc., whenever the government insists that such protections are hazardous to our health, then we might as well not have the rights in the first place. It’s like locking a criminal in a cell but giving him the key to open it along with a stern warning to only use the key if he has a very good reason. Doesn’t the key make the cell a rather pointless accessory? Sure he might remain in it sometimes, but only when he wants to. And it’s precisely when he wants to be behind bars that you don’t need the bars at all.
I’m not suggesting that state governments should do nothing in response to the coronavirus. I am suggesting that they shouldn’t have the power to do whatever the hell they want, for whatever reason they want, to whatever extent they want, for however long they want, with whatever penalty they want. Which is what is happening now all across the country. Governments can and should act justly and prudently to respond to threats that endanger their citizens lives. But there is little in the way of justice and prudence in these measures.