Beware those who insist everything must change following a crisis.
President George W Bush addresses his National Security Council, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in a meeting at Camp David, Thurmont Maryland, September 15, 2001. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).
I don’t want to live in a post-coronavirus world. I don’t want sinister officials insisting that nothing can ever be the same again. I don’t want a chorus of talk radio hosts accusing me of a “March 10 mindset” every time I raid the fridge without first hosing myself down in bleach. I don’t want to conform my life to a color-coded public health scale that suddenly jumps from mauve to burnt sienna without explanation. I don’t want to be exhorted to “say something if I see something.” I don’t want magnetic ribbons on the backs of cars. I don’t want books with titles like Deliver Us From Illness. I don’t want a new government agency.
What I’d like is to live in a normal republic again. These days, that’s asking a lot.
After 9/11, we decided there was no going back to the way things were before. We treated the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as a historical threshold, a wakeup call into a dangerous world through which we’d heretofore been sleepwalking. The First Amendment and Fourth Amendment and Tenth Amendment might look nice on parchment, but they’d vanished into the shadow of the imperative to end terrorism. In marched the TSA’s blue-clad elves, the NSA’s eavesdroppers, Department of Homeland Security employees looking lost. Up went that rainbow terror scale and those yellow ribbons. Prisoners abroad were tortured; Dick Cheney tried to send the military to Lackawanna. The entire world was suddenly our battlefield. The ACLU might have objected, but Real Americans understood this was a war against evil, and that meant the bluntest tools in our kit needed to be utilized.
Now a new battle has been joined, this one against microbial imperialism. A climate of fear has taken hold, perhaps even darker than the one that prevailed after 9/11. Back then, we worried terrorists might be plotting behind the hedge rows; now the threat is literally impossible to see, with every one of our friends and neighbors a potential COVID carrier. This has given way to, among other things, a culture of snitching, with self-anointed hall monitors ratting out their fellow citizens for such depraved behavior as walking in parks. In Connecticut, one “mortified” woman bragged about alerting the public after she saw people gathering on a golf course. The snitch was so proud of herself that she gave the media her full name and hometown. “I threw some f-bombs,” she assured everyone.
Such tattling, according to news reports, has been used not just to report social distancing scofflaws, but to exact revenge and settle scores. And while the accused aren’t yet clattering on tumbrils off to the guillotine, the precedent we’re setting is ominous. Civil society can’t function without a baseline of trust and restraint. It certainly can’t function if Janet can call in a SWAT team on her coughing neighbor who just so happens to have ditched her at the prom back in 1973.
Following 9/11, everything was subordinated to the singular value of national security; now it’s public health that reigns supreme. Before its mantle, our constitutional rights have given way. Last week, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced that anyone attending Easter services would have their license plate numbers recorded and be notified that they were committing misdemeanors. Orange County issued an order last month banning “all public and private gatherings of any number of people” (isn’t one a number?). And Governor Gretchen Whitmer has prohibited Michiganders from visiting relatives and large stores from selling such hazardous goods as carpeting and garden furniture.
Freedom of movement is being curtailed. States are working to keep outsiders out. The most amusing example of this is in Rhode Island, where Governor Gina Raimondo recently commanded that all drivers with New York license plates be pulled over and forced into quarantine. It sounds like the kind of thing that was hatched up in a Boston bar after a fourth round of Sam Adams. You know what we should do? Round up every one of them leaf-peepin’, pinstripe-wearin’ bastihds and send them to that Cuban prison down theyeah. Certainly every New England heart beats with a little fascism for the city to the southwest, but Raimondo’s order does seem like an overstep. She did eventually back off her New Yorker profiling initiative, but only in the sense that she expanded it to include every other state in the union.
None of this is to dismiss the kind of careful health-minded regulations that we need in place right now. Large public gatherings really have facilitated the virus’s spread, whether among worshippers at megachurches or morons on spring break. And with Gotham the COVID epicenter (and Aaron Judge looking healthy again), it makes sense that certain states would want to keep New Yorkers away for the time being.
Still, we should bear in mind two stubborn facts, both of which call to mind the September 11 aftermath. The first is that government authority is programmed to grow, never shrink. I slightly depart here from the economist Robert Higgs, who’s been frequently cited since the pandemic began. Higgs thought up what he called the ratchet effect, which holds that the state gains powers during a crisis, then surrenders only some of them afterwards, yielding a net growth in government. Yet at least since 9/11, the feds haven’t relinquished much of anything at all. Instead an authorization for use of military force has become a permission slip for ever-expanding empire. A gigantic surveillance apparatus has grown out of the NSA. Fear begat action, which created precedent, which became the license for even more action. Now we’re assured the current measures won’t beckon this way, that they’re only temporary. Are we so sure?
The second fact is that our responses to crises don’t arise inorganically. That is to say, much of what we do under threat are things we’re inclined to do anyway. Red Sox fans hauling away Yankees fans is only the cheekiest example of this. Certainly the urge to snitch is deeply embedded within some of us, as so many totalitarian polities have demonstrated. Rod Liddle expresses this well: “There is a certain tranche of the population,” he says, “which yearns for its fellow citizens to be chastised, punished and, if possible, banged up.” We’re also attracted to those civic-minded catchphrases, national security and public health—if we must conform, we prefer the line to be simple. And of course, everyone wants to feel safe. Authoritarianism, in other words, isn’t something artificially imposed; its pieces naturally interlock at a time like this.
Fortunately, there’s another impulse that can check all the others: our aversion to being ordered around by beady-eyed authorities. The impetus of Everything Must Change does eventually give way to a craving for normal, for the liberty to exercise our habits again, a kind of human snapback mechanism. Other problems arise that make the previous crisis seem obsolete. When today Nurse Ratched comes on the Washington Metro intercom and encourages passengers to “see it, say it,” it sounds like an audio artifact from another time. The constant state of emergency required for a post-9/11 culture can’t endure forever, if only because its towering restrictions and imperatives are incompatible with the mundanities of daily life.
Yet that doesn’t mean these paradigms ever get rolled back completely. What lingers are the less tangible changes, the full-body scans that affect us only when we fly, the drone strikes we never see. And that, I think, is the danger of a post-coronavirus world. The restaurants will eventually reopen; social distancing will end. The snitches will go back to harassing smokers or whatever dreary things they otherwise do. But in that invisible and unfelt space, something may be lost forever. That could mean a more powerful presidency or a heightened health surveillance network or a clampdown on unhealthy and unpopular vices. Or it could mean we’re just a little more atomized than we were before, unconsciously suspicious of the uncleanliness of others.
In a republic, the unseen and the seen both matter. And the former especially has undergone more than enough radical transformation lately. Yes, a return to normal will mean trusting Michigan residents to purchase lawn gnomes again. But it sure beats another collective mental breakdown.
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