Calamity and lost liberty

It is worth noting, in the thick of our great national quarantine, that we have gone in a heartbeat from an ordinary civil society to a step short of martial law.

That’s something worth thinking about, and worrying about just a little.

As the War on Terror was being rolled out — Lord, has it been nearly two decades? — I wrote an editorial for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel warning that we should not be casual about sacrificing any of our civil liberties because we might never get them back.

Some rights are almost always lost in a time of war. That’s just the way it is.

Lincoln suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War. During World War I, the First Amendment was put on hold. In World War II, more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned with no due process.

We have always accepted such infringements because we recognized the greater common threat and understood that such extraordinary measures would be temporary. The war would end, victory would be declared, and life would return to normal.

But “terror” is a tactic, not the usual enemy, and defeating it is not a simple matter of routing an army, securing a border or planting a flag. Who can say when terror has been vanquished and victory achieved? If the fight goes on forever, how can we risk giving up our weapons?

In more ways than can be counted, America is a far more authoritarian nation than it was before 9/11, and there is no end in sight for the war on terror.

And the suspension of our liberties has been a bipartisan effort, for what that is worth. The National Defense Authorization Act, giving sweeping powers to the executive branch, was passed under George W. Bush. An expanded version signed by Barack Obama gave the president the power to hold any American in military detention indefinitely.

The parallel between extremist terror and the coronavirus is not perfect. Neither respects national borders, but a virus at least has an arc: a definable beginning, middle and end.

It can come in waves, however. The threat of a global pandemic will always be with us in an increasingly crowded, mobile world. What we are asked to give up now, we might be told we have to do without forever.

Two things need to be said, I think.

The first is that that government at all levels — from the chief executive to the smallest-town mayor — will issue clearly unconstitutional orders during the crisis. In fact, they already have. I scoured Indiana statutes for authorization of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s recent edicts. All are defensible, but some are highly questionable.

But the second is that nobody is going to seriously call our officials on these actions in the middle of efforts to flatten the pandemic curve. We are too invested in the “we’re all in this together” heroic struggle. We rightly value safety first.

I won’t belabor the point. In fact, I feel a little disloyal even bringing it up.

But let’s please pay attention and keep our ability to consider, in hindsight, rationally and systematically, what we have done and whether it was effective enough to have been worth it.

Our federal system of diffused power has shown remarkable speed in amassing and exercising breathtaking control of its citizens. And those fiercely independent, freedom-loving citizens have shown remarkable ease in submitting to that control.

The government now knows it can tap into that kind of incredible power. And it knows we can reflexively get used to it.

Necessity can become habit. And habits are hard to break.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].