On April 2nd, 2020, New York City issued a public statement encouraging its citizens to report social distancing violations to the city police. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, many states have instituted social distancing ordinances in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the virus. Their intentions seem pure: protect the populous. But have we actually opened the door to a much more radical approach to law enforcement? If we look back through the corridors of time, we see the fruit that a culture of mistrust bears, and it’s worth asking ourselves: are we willing to give up our freedom for the perceived security a large, centralized bureaucracy provides?
America was founded on a few core principles, one of which is the rule of law. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution secures for citizens the right to “due process” and equal protection under the law. Guaranteeing this right is vital to maintaining a judicial system that functions properly and honors the core tenets protecting life, liberty, and property. The 6th Amendment contains what is known as the “confrontation clause”, protecting the accused person’s right to confront and cross-examine the witnesses against him or her. The oft-referenced 1st Amendment additionally secures for us our “freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition.” These fundamental principles are hugely responsible for the fair and just legal system that we have enjoyed to date, and men and women of great courage have fought to protect these rights since before the founding of our nation.
Unfortunately in today’s culture, the predominant attitude toward freedom of speech and the rule of law is much more arbitrary, and people are able to hide underneath a cloak of anonymity when reporting their neighbors. On March 30th, 2020, Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best encouraged residents of Washington State to report to the police “racist name calling”, stating that “Washington State is no place for hate”. Some might remember the 2014 report of a 12 year-old girl at Westridge Middle School being arrested and charged with felony “threat to commit violence” for pointing her fingers in the shape of a gun at several classmates who had been relentlessly bullying her. These incidents, alongside New York City’s encouragement to citizens to snitch on neighbors for appearing to violate social distancing laws, are reminiscent of earlier times in Europe when family members and neighbors were turned against each other in order to grow the authoritarian regimes of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.
One Wallowa County resident knows this all too well. Growing up in Germany during the pre-WWII years of the Hitler Youth and surviving the aftermath of it, she said that learning of NYC’s recommendation to report social distancing violations to the police sent “shivers down my spine”. Her memories of families ripped apart because of their “civic duty” to protect the Reich are clear and real. When asked what one could do to prevent this call to action from getting a foothold within our culture, she simply said: “courage”.
Courage is the antidote to “tattle-tale” culture and the tyranny that ensues. By taking power back into our own hands, we remove it from the centralized government that wields much bigger weapons and feeds its own ever-increasing need for power and control. When we have courage, we disarm tyranny.
Imagine if, instead of reporting our neighbors to the police for an apparent social distancing violation, we simply had the courage to walk up to them and say (from a distance): “Hey, I noticed you are gathered with a group here, if you are not all family I would really appreciate it if you would move apart in order to protect our most vulnerable citizens.” Or, in the case of the 12-year-old girl arrested for “threatening violence,” if the teachers and parents had had the courage to teach her better how to cope with bullies instead of terrorizing her for her reaction to them. Imagine a country where instead of calling the police when we overhear our neighbor’s possibly racially charged language, we simply had the courage to say “I don’t appreciate you speaking like that.”
If this all sounds far-fetched and utopian, rest assured it isn’t. Up until recently, it was a normal to teach our kids how to behave and treat others decently, with the dignity that all humans deserve. People were bold enough to hold each other accountable for their actions. Social norms and decorum were integral to the functioning of society. The force of law was reserved for instances of actual violence, not perceived slights and offenses. It is ironic that the “anything goes” culture of the progressive left has led to a situation that they themselves aren’t courageous enough to handle, so they rely upon the force of law to do the hard work of holding people accountable for their actions. What most fail to see, however, is that it is very dangerous to give the government the power to determine what we can and cannot say, where we can and cannot assemble, and whether or not we can face our accuser. We need to take back our power and embrace the social responsibility to self-monitor and hold each other accountable for behavior that falls outside cultural acceptability; history tells us we simply cannot afford to do otherwise.
Editor’s note: This column was written in April, but its subject and message remains relevant today. It was submitted as one of two initial columns. The first was published in the Chieftain on April 27th.