Commentary

Our rights do not disappear in times of emergency

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We all knew it was probably inevitable, but it is here, finally – the global pandemic which was occasionally scratching at the back of our minds is now a living reality. Murmurs from China were overshadowed by a media whiteout of incessant investigations against President Trump. Italy locked down, but still little attention was paid to the threat upon the horizon of the Atlantic. And then all the toilet paper was gone.

Then the entire non-essential Earth was under de facto house arrest, in a “just two more weeks” state of emergency. Crowded stadiums became gatherings of no more than 10 people and citizens began calling the police to inform them that “the neighbors have family over.” The land of the free became, overnight, the land of alone together hoping unemployment comes through.

No representation and no peaceful assembly of the people. Our saving grace of social media, typically a platform of free speech, transformed into edited speech that must garner the approval of the World Health Organization. But it is all for the greater good, to protect us all from the hidden enemy, of which next to nothing was known.

The draconian laws implemented by most states find no equal in all of American history, even during the Civil War. But there is a parallel. Warrantless wiretapping, secret courts, mass collection of so called meta-data, the unification of all intelligence services under the auspices of Homeland Security, and war without defined objectives were just a few of the products of that particular fear of the unknown after the 9/11 attacks.

Today we find ourselves all suspects, guilty of harboring a viral illness before proven healthy. We were told that it was for our own good. And they may have been right, at the time. Information on the coronavirus of 2019 was almost non-existent. Even now with antibody testing, it looks deadlier than the flu with a far more insidious mode and rate of transmission.

What was most terrifying about this virus was not what was known about it, but what was unknown, particularly the unknown of who may be walking around as a carrier in the long period of communicability without symptoms. Everyone is a potential suspect. It could be in your house right now, or in you.

And with every great challenge to the unknown we face, we sacrifice ever more of our fundamental rights. But what good are rights if we give them up willingly, thankfully even, every time we are faced with an unknown? If they had asked nicely it would be one thing, but these are decrees, punishable by law, even as we clear out the prisons, issued by executives and without representation.

We are giving up our rights as if they were given to us by our government. But that is not how our constitutional system works. The emergency powers granted by our state laws and constitutions are being stretched to the broadest possible interpretations of their meanings, using laws more generic than ones actually designed for pandemics.

The governor of Maine, for example, has the power to stop the sales of liquor, explosives and combustibles, but nowhere explicitly has the power to declare some businesses and products as “non-essential” while others are deemed essential. By what means were these delineations reached? The amount of money the businesses that have been deemed essential have to lobby with should be one clue. But nowhere does our constitution provide the governor with the authority to restrict our First Amendment right to peacefully assemble if our six foot social distance remains in compliance.

It has been almost two months at the time of this writing since the declaration of emergency, and we are yet to have any representation to debate the impact and advisability of continuing with such draconian measures. Maybe these measures are warranted, and maybe not. Perhaps some other solution could be reached. Doctors do not make good legislators during pandemics because they are morally obligated to address the health impacts of the health risk in question. Passing legislation to respond to the crisis is the essential job of the representatives we campaigned for, raised money for, and elected.      

This will not be the last emergency of existential proportions we face. They are the “new normal.” What is not normal is “being together” apart. That is an oxymoron. It is blatant, flagrant Orwellian doublespeak. Humans are social beings, and that is about all that Karl Marx assessed correctly. But by now, Marx seems to be having his way with us, and the only thing we have really caught from China is their system of government.

It is times such as these that our rights as amended to the constitution are most important. Our rights mean nothing if, with every slight challenge, they are swept away like a cloth on a dining room table, hoping the décor still stands in place. Our government is not nearly that adept, and to a degree, fortunately so.

What is the right to speech if it does not protect the most offensive speech in a given era? What is the right to bear arms if, in times of disorder, they are stripped away? What good is the freedom to assemble if, when assembly is needed most, the right to it is snuffed out? What good is a right to trial if, when you find yourself accused, extenuating circumstances have made such a hearing inconvenient to the government but a conviction most convenient?

Rights are not lost during times of peace and prosperity, but in times of danger, turmoil and chaos when they are taken by an emergency decree and never returned. That has always been how rights, liberties, freedoms, and lives were lost.

We are in precedent-setting times. We must establish the precedents before it is too late, because others are setting them for us. We cannot allow fear to rule us, we must rule fear. Dirigo translates to “I Lead.” Maine must help set the precedents of liberty. The first step is for our representatives to convene.

About Delian Valeriani

Delian Valeriani works as a diver, cook, and pyrotechnician, he has started and run a restaurant, is a volunteer firefighter, visual artist, and sometime political activist. In his spare time he writes philosophy, reads and collects books, and enjoys hiking, fishing, whitewater, shooting, and riding his motorcycle. His philosophical work applies scientific theory as a basis for social theory and strives to bring historical and philosophical context to the apparently convoluted world of today.

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