Years ago, the political cartoonist Tom Toles drew a pollster asking a man in a first panel how many people he’d be willing to kill in order to be able to walk around the house in his undershirt in the winter.
“All of them,” the man said in the second panel, and we nearly did a spit take.
We had a similar reaction Sunday when NPR Weekend All Things Considered host Tom Gjelten was speaking with Kevin Cope, an associate professor at the University of Virginia law school.
A month ago, with the coronavirus pandemic well underway but long before the brunt of it began to be felt in the U.S., Cope and three other professors, from Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago law School and the University of Virginia School of Law, conducted a survey, with the results reported in The Atlantic magazine online under the head-snapping headline “Red and Blue America Agree That Now Is the Time to Violate the Constitution.”
How many civil liberties would we kill?
All of them, apparently.
The survey, the professors write, “reveals a remarkable willingness to tolerate civil-rights violations in order to confront the pandemic, regardless of party affiliation.”
Respondents were given eight possible responses to the burgeoning outbreak, all of which may be unconstitutional, and were told the steps would likely save some lives. They included “forced quarantine in a government facility, criminal penalties for spreading misinformation, bans against certain people entering the country and conscription of health care workers.”
We mentioned last week that in Turkmenistan, dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has made it a crime to say the word “coronavirus” in public or to wear a face mask. We said that was cuckoo.
No doubt from his vantage, however, Berdymukhamedov is penalizing the spread of misinformation.
This is slippery stuff that in a democracy should resist quick decisions.
But in a crisis?
The 3,000-person representative sample – Democrats and Republicans alike – supported all eight proposals, and most by healthy margins.
At that time, the U.S. had 58 confirmed COVID-19 deaths. As of this writing, that number is approximately 25,000 (and may well be higher).
A month ago, respondents favored seizing businesses and prohibiting citizens and non-citizens from entering the country. By even bigger margins, they supported conscripting health care workers despite risks to the workers’ health.
About 70 percent of respondents were good with criminalizing speech – and were even after half the sample was explicitly told it would likely violate the First Amendment.
Yes, they said, all of it.
Yes to authorities – your president or governor, depending on whom you prefer at the moment, or your mayor or city councilors – shutting down news media that question the constitutionality of their actions, as this column is doing.
And few questions asked.
Are we really so easily cowed by fear? If we are not, we are at least cowed by this mysterious disease, bipartisanly.
Yes, they said, we will give up civil liberties to fight the disease. We will conscript people, jail people, gag people, if it means saving lives. We will tear up the Bill of Rights.
History, the authors observe, “presents numerous examples of liberty violations made in the face of security threats: the Alien and Sedition Acts signed into law by President John Adams, Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, and the use of torture after 9/11.”
All of these, too, were said to be saving lives, and had popular support.
We keep speaking of a new normal when this virus is behind us. That day will come, even if it takes a while – and then we also may have a new rendezvous with what it means to be free.