At various points in our 244 years of American history, the country has been occasionally faced with daunting calamities that caused widespread disruption to Americans’ daily lives including wars, economic depressions and pandemics.
Each crisis America has faced included their own unique challenges. Other than the Civil War, Americans have been able to circumvent the mass chaos and sometimes anarchy that evolves from various forms of legitimate and illegitimate panics that have arisen around the world from various causes. Many of these events changed world history, altered governments and set a new and drastically different course for many of their citizens – and too often these events caused dramatic shifts in power – and in some cases, mass genocide and anarchy.
The Spanish Flu was estimated to kill over 675,000 Americans in 1918 and 1919, yet the country avoided mass chaos. With the gigantic exception of the Civil War that cost over 600,000 American lives, we have been able to avoid cataclysmic government and societal changes for one reason: The United States Constitution and specifically The Bill of Rights.
Although the Founders never dreamed of the Covid-19 virus, they knew that governments of all kinds could seize upon national emergencies as an excuse to trample rights, seize power and alter government forever. King George III announced emergency acts and began to quarter soldiers in the colonists' own homes along with other draconian steps that ultimately led to revolt. Suddenly, the everyday freedoms that colonists believed were theirs as British subjects were instantly removed.
Although America has never officially been under martial law, (Lincoln came close to installing it in 1861), Lincoln committed other acts he felt necessary for the times via executive order, such as suspending habeas corpus (due process), arresting newspaper editors who were critical of him, even issuing an arrest warrant for a Supreme Court Justice. To this day there are still scholars who would argue those acts were justified for the times, despite their unconstitutionality. Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Japanese Americans on the West Coast into internment camps via executive order after Pearl Harbor. Today, we repel in horror at that level of discrimination invoked by the government in time of war who at the time felt it was a prudent action under the circumstances.
As the Covid-19 virus begins to reach its zenith in the coming weeks, the pressure will be on President Trump, his administration and Congress, as well as state and local authorities, to balance public health concerns with individual rights as guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
This is no easy task - especially if conditions deteriorate to the point hospitals are overloaded, the death toll escalates exponentially, consumer goods become scarce or the economy tanks even further.
Ben Franklin is attributed with saying, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Undoubtedly, many Americans today would all too willingly give up some individual liberties for fear of the pandemic. It may even be a majority. Americans should rethink long and hard how much liberty they are willing to yield and balance that with a common-sense approach to defeating the virus.
Already, we are seeing disturbing encroachments into our Bill of Rights. Dane County, Wisconsin, opened a website for citizens to report other citizens not practicing social distancing. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott encouraged Texans to report any gathering of ten people or more, followed by the governors of other states. While public displays of larger crowds or those flauntingly ignoring the state and local requests for social distancing have justifiably received public rebukes, do Americans really want a snitch to report a 10-person family hunkering down in their own homes or a small bible study group looking to prayer to get them through the pandemic?
News reports began to surface this weekend that the Justice Department is asking for broad and sweeping emergency powers to deny due process (habeas corpus) and changes to trial procedures that could negatively affect a citizen’s defense at trial as well as a request to end the statute of limitations in certain cases. The president still retains many Executive Orders that were handed down by other presidents that have never been practically enforced or applied and therefore never challenged in the Supreme Court.
Lawmakers and government bureaucrats should tread diligently, but carefully on how they ask Americans to help them fight the virus, with always a mind to how their orders line up with our Bill of Rights.
At the heart of America’s DNA is a rugged individualism and an ability to persevere and rise to the occasion to defeat any enemy – even an invisible one.
We will pull together as a country and win this fight too – as long as our elected leaders and bureaucrats are transparent, thoughtful and don’t lose the public’s trust by invoking draconian measures that trample our Bill of Rights in the name of defeating the pandemic.
David Thomas Roberts, CEO of Teligistics, a telecom financial management firm, is a serial entrepreneur, inventor, bestselling author and public speaker.