Nearly five weeks ago when Governor Newsom ordered the people of California to stay at home except to perform essential tasks there was a lot of joking about house arrest.
And the comparison makes sense.
Like inmates in jail, we are more or less confined to a space and forced to occupy ourselves with what we can. Freedom is a thing of the past and some of us sit around reminiscing about what we used to be able to do, while simultaneously wondering if we will ever be able to do it again.
Like inmates, we are hopeful our situation could change. Instead of law books, we scour the Internet looking for some hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will peak and fade. We monitor the Governor’s statements about re-opening the state, hoping for early parole.
Not everyone is going quietly. Some act out and refuse to go along until an authority figure intervenes. The non-essential business owners who refuse to close can look forward to a visit from the county department of health along with the local police department, who – like the prison warden – have the tools to force unruly behavior into line.
Essential workers, meanwhile, are like prisoners on work detail; they are allowed to leave lock-down to do their jobs but always have to return to the cell at the end of the day.
Where the comparison breaks down is that unlike the incarcerated, we are accused of no crime. What we have instead is a form of protective custody intended to increase the safety of the entire state.
Author Margaret Atwood – no stranger to stories about governmental overreach – wrote in “The Handmaid’s Tale” about two types of freedom: freedom to and freedom from. Freedom to is the ability to do what we want. Freedom from refers to protection from harm.
It is a concept worth considering in the age of coronavirus. Californians have been asked to voluntarily surrender a bunch of “freedom to” items: the right to assemble, to watch a movie, to hang out with friends, to eat in a restaurant. In return, this behavioral shift is expected to provide a certain “freedom from” by protecting us from a gruesome surge of coronavirus infections.
And it seems to be working. Reports from the state speak of flattening the curve. The curve is being flattened. It appears that by self-isolating we are likely avoiding a whole bunch of worst-case-scenarios. There is no doubt that lives are being saved.
But at what cost? Our country, in theory, takes a dim view of locking up innocent citizens. The internment of Japanese-American citizens in “camps” such as Manzanar during World War II will always be an ugly stain on our Nation’s history.
The fact that nearly all of the detainees went willingly does not erase the stain.
The stay-at-home directive has brought quarantine protests, such those seen recently in Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. But like many Japanese-American citizens during World War II, most of us have willingly lined up to go to camp.
It is a troubling dilemma.
One the one hand, we have been asked to voluntarily surrender precious constitutional rights of assembly and freedom of movement. On the other, our actions have already saved lives.
Free speech is a right we still have and we need to use it. I am self-isolating while writing this column. You can obey the dictates for the greater good while still questioning the governmental authority behind them. And once you get used to speaking out, it gets easier. And we are all going to have a lot of speaking out to do once the pandemic is contained.
Most importantly, we will need to fight like hell to ensure what we gave up temporarily does not become a permanent loss. There is a tendency for government to hang onto power once it has ahold of it and we cannot let that happen here.
There is a difference between waiving a right and having it taken away.