As I looked forward to starting my undergraduate studies in America — coming from the UAE — I was excited for a multitude of reasons, none more so than experiencing what America stood for. A few identities stood out to me most prominently — namely America being a “melting pot” and the “land of the free.”
The “melting pot” identity was one that I was quite familiar with, mainly through media exposure and seeing people with a similar cultural background as me maintain a strong and respected presence in the United States. However, viewing America as the “land of the free” was new to me and the prospect of experiencing that seemed thrilling.
As I spent time in America, I began to learn a fair bit about the freedoms afforded to all persons on American soil. That included me as well and honestly, I was in awe when I realized my right to freedom of speech and expression, for instance, was protected much the same way as pretty much anybody else’s.
I ended up learning a great deal about the other rights — ranging from freedom of religion to the right to due process — and most of these extended to non-citizens as well. The Tenth Amendment seems to assign a lot of power to individual states and the people. Such an extension of rights is pretty much unmatched globally — I can certainly attest to that — making America a worthy bearer of the moniker “land of the free”.
However, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I have found myself thinking deeply about such freedoms and how they tie in with morality. How such freedoms are not universal, thus making them a prized possession worth pride; yet when they are misused, they become subjects of great ignominy and even put such an identity — that of being the land of the free — in jeopardy.
I personally believe that the freedom and civil liberties available to civilians should be used in tandem with what is morally right. This, in my opinion, holds true even during the best of times. But as with everything else, COVID-19 has exposed this weakness and made it all the more apparent.
Simply put, freedom and individualism should not equate to selfishness and irresponsibility. There have been over 200,000 COVID-19 related deaths in the U.S. with about 1,200 such deaths from Wisconsin.
One may argue that mathematically, such numbers are not a massive proportion of the population and that death is inevitable. Often such an argument would be used by some to question the gravity of the situation and make a case for using civil liberty to act solely in one’s best interest. But that would be a flawed argument.
It is important to recognize that we are not talking about mere numbers here. These are human lives we are talking about. Human lives attached to families and friends and communities. Even a single preventable death is one too many. One can stand for individual freedoms and still show empathy, as such deaths are preventable by community action.
The number of lives lost and the suffering caused as a result of COVID-19 could certainly be pinned down to the government response. After all, the leading crew of the ship would always be held responsible for how the ship holds up at sea. But I do not want to focus on that. A lot of work has been done to speak truth to power, which I applaud.
In a country known to be averse to government overreach, the blame cannot be placed on the government alone. In a country where everyone on American soil is afforded such civil liberty and power, a lot of responsibility falls on the civilian populace to do the right thing and that is what I find important to discuss, because the freedoms afforded to the people make it possible to do the right thing without the need for much government direction.
An important facet of freedom and civil liberty is being able to choose exactly the kind of media and information one wants to consume. Such freedom is invaluable when compared to countries that feed only blatant propaganda to their residents, like North Korea. But with such freedom of choice comes great responsibility and some people make deadly choices by consuming media that decries the death of hundreds of thousands of people to a potent disease as a hoax and listening only to what they want to believe.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, believes that an “anti-science bias” in the country is problematic when fighting the pandemic. Science is ever changing and not every scientific announcement can be treated as gospel, which perhaps explains hesitancy to believe in science. But nothing comes closer to the truth than science does, because of how rigorous the processes involved in arriving at scientific conclusions are.
Libertarian ideology is often at odds with science, but during a pandemic when there is a visible threat, listening to experts might be the most responsible thing to do. The spreading mechanism of COVID-19 illustrates that everyone is interconnected and there are no truly self containing actions. Wearing masks, therefore, becomes a simple, yet fairly effective means of protection. Wearing a mask ends up protecting those around us. Such an action might conflict with some people’s idea of freedom and liberty, but by leading by example and urging everyone else around to wear masks, one can protect themselves as well. It is a very simple exercise of one’s freedoms, akin to wearing a seatbelt in a car because it protects both yourself and others in the car in case of an accident and thus becomes the right thing to do.
Doing the morally right thing ends up working better to protect one’s best interests than selfish actions that endanger everybody. After all, what use is freedom and civil liberty when one is dead?
Rights and freedoms are some of the most invaluable weapons one could possess, but like any weapon, they can easily backfire. Using civil liberties to hold those in power accountable, consuming reliable information, paying attention to verified experts and acting responsibly is a great use of such power. Anything else serves as a waste of such power, potentially even a surrender of power if one no longer lives to exercise it. It also infringes on others’ freedoms, by subjecting them to consequences of someone else’s irresponsible actions. That is not very “land of the free.” For instance, I know I cannot return to campus even if I want to, due to other’s actions, as the “Smart Restart” seemingly grinds to a floundering halt.
Until the “land of the free” wins the fight against immorality and ignorance, there will only exist an illusion of freedom, as immorality and ignorance will control the populace and render “free will” pointless.
This piece may not change any of the minds that actually need changing, but I am rooting for freedom — and indeed, America — to win this fight with the help of morality. With the efforts of everyone privileged enough to possess freedom, I hope this conquest ends in victory.
Anupras is a sophomore studying Computer Science. Do you think civil liberties and freedoms are powerful? Should they be used responsibly to benefit society? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anupras Mohapatra is a former opinion editor for The Daily Cardinal and currently serves on the Editorial Board. He is a senior double majoring in Computer Science and Journalism.