Thinking about freedom, when it’s not there

Scott Swanson

Been thinking at all about freedom lately?

If so, you’re not alone.

I’ve had more conversations about liberty in the last three months than I think I’ve had in 50-plus years.

I also have to confess that I spent a lot more time this past Fourth of July thinking about liberty than I usually do – running around, doing family stuff or covering Fourth of July news events.

This time, though, there wasn’t the normal fireworks celebration at Cheadle Lake Park, no banjo concert at the Sweet Home Vets Club.

Not to say nothing was happening – all we had to do was look up as the sun went down Saturday night to see a wild show of, well, mostly illegal fireworks exploding around us. The street show (the legal ones) was also awesome to behold.

Apparently, being sequestered and not being able to go see the Foster Lake fireworks during Sportsman’s Holiday this year triggered an impulse in Sweet Home to celebrate the Fourth.

And that’s good, though my dog may disagree. This year, the increased volume and intensity of fireworks got him more worked up than I’ve ever seen him.

Back to my point, though: One result of this COVID-19 thing has done is made many of us think a lot about freedom.

This Fourth, as I toiled in my yard (another story), I especially thought about how, in 1776, a bunch of guys gathered in sweltering heat to sign their names on the dotted line, saying they were sick of being told what to do by a government that was more interested in their money than in their needs, and was pretty out of touch with what was happening out in the colonies.

When things are going well, when we can pretty much do what we want, whenever we want, it’s easy to take our freedoms for granted: the right to assemble, to write or say what we think, to believe what we want and practice that belief (as long as we’re not damaging someone else), the right to be left alone when the police show up without a warrant or probable cause, and many more (the right to vote, own a firearm, own land, marry whom you want, wear what you want, etc.) These are not necessarily things people in other lands can do.

With the coronavirus, though, we’ve experienced changes in the way our government is behaving. Merchants have been ordered to close up shop and stay home, putting many in dire straits, if not out of business. We’ve been told to hunker down in our homes, which has resulted in cabin fever for a lot of people, aggravated by a long period of relative unproductivity.

Things aren’t right and, as recent protests have demonstrated, Americans have had a lot of time to build up an explosive mix of frustration and anger.

Government edicts have closed businesses. Churchgoers have been forced to stay home for months. Schools have been crippled. Kids have been kicked off athletic fields financed by their taxpaying parents. In one nearby city, basketball hoops have been removed from the backboards in public parks. We’re told that we shouldn’t – or can’t travel.

The most recent rule from Gov. Kate Brown is even more stringent: masks for everybody, everywhere we are inside with people we don’t normally spend a lot of time with. Violate this one and you may face a misdemeanor penalty.

All of these edicts have come against a backdrop of fear of COVID-19, a genuine threat, and justified by our government’s expressed desire to keep us healthy.

There’s always a reason behind every new law, particularly in a democratic nation where the government ultimately answers to us, the voters: “We need your tax money to pay for parks/paving/police.” “This will make your life easier.” “It will help someone.” “This will contribute to the greater good – children, schools, healthcare, etc.”

But when laws dictate that citizens can’t gather peacefully or, say, own a firearm without strings attached, the question becomes whether the government’s interest in legitimate purposes such as keeping the peace, maintaining health and safety, sustaining the economy, is trumping critical liberties we believe are guaranteed by our constitution.

Back in high school or college civics class, all of this may have seemed pretty theoretical, stimulus for a nap, maybe.

But now we’re getting a first-hand lesson in liberty.

South of the border, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has actually banned singing by church-goers. If you know anything about church, singing is a big part of the experience, as is interpersonal interaction with others. That’s why many have objected, questioned rules restricting public gatherings and now this – particularly after government officials have done little other than issuing a few feeble admonitions to the protesters who have packed public spaces across the nation in recent weeks.

When officials look the other way as violent, angry demonstrations pack streets and loot stores, but put the kibosh on peaceful, religious activities of otherwise law-abiding citizens, a red flag should be waving for all of us.

I’m concerned about this, because I think back to how, after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, we have permitted increased government intrusion into our lives: dramatic growth of street surveillance, strip searches at the airport, the use of “sneak and peek” warrants, “Magic Lantern” surveillance of one’s computer usage, and more. People can now be arrested for simply associating with possible terrorist organizations, even if they have not committed a crime.

Of course, there’s a justification: terrorism is an evil that is difficult to combat without some of these measures, and the justification is that all this makes our lives safer.

The problem is that rights provided by our Constitution, placed there by people who did so because they, or people they knew, had actually gone to jail for their beliefs, for speaking out, for assembling, are being lost in the process.

Sure, our governor isn’t asserting a divine right to tell us we must wear masks to walk into any public building. But while Gov. Brown purports (and probably genuinely believes) that she is doing what’s right for us, the problem is that we have no say in the matter, at least not until the next election.

And the question is, what’s the next step?