Unprecedented safety measures today may threaten liberty tomorrow

Guest column by US Congressman Jody Hice

U.S. Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.10) Contributed photo

To combat the coronavirus pandemic, extraordinary measures are being implemented at all levels of government. From shelter-in-place orders to financial assistance to managing medical supply chains, government is playing a larger role in American life today than most of us have ever seen. In these uncertain times, government is in the driver’s seat, monitoring our lives and determining our futures.

Many of the policies now dominating our lives are well-intentioned and indispensable, based on the recommendations of our best experts. However, there is a fine line between practical and necessary health policies and overly intrusive and politically motivated government controls.

California, for example, has issued a shelter-in-place order and citizens are urged to remain home when possible. This mandate is common sense. In Los Angeles, however, Mayor Eric Garcetti has adopted a more aggressive stance, encouraging residents to report neighbors suspected of being outside for non-essential purposes and stating that “snitches get rewards.” Garcetti has even deployed law enforcement to forcibly shut down businesses he deems non-essential. Unfortunately, the mayor — seemingly guided by his own liberal politics — has shuttered firearms retailers, contrary to federal guidelines, but continues to allow abortion clinics to operate despite urgings from federal officials to cease elective medical procedures.

Across the country, some government officials have become extremely aggressive. A prosecutor in Ohio, Joe Deters, has threatened anyone violating the governor’s stay-at-home order with felony charges. When asked about religious gatherings, he even threatened, “If I was the governor, I would tell these churches, the first attendees at your church is going to be the National Guard because we are stopping this right now, OK?”

Thankfully, Deters is not the governor of Ohio, but his tone has become increasingly common as church leaders throughout America are being threatened with criminal charges if suspected of violating coronavirus guidelines. If you think this cannot happen to you, think again. In Colorado, a former state trooper was briefly arrested for playing softball with his family because police officers suspected him of violating social distancing guidelines.

This aggressive enforcement is not limited to local government. According to Dr. Michael Ryan with the World Health Organization, because transmission of the virus could be happening in our homes, “We need to go and look in families to find those people who may be sick and remove them and isolate them in a safe and dignified manner.” Dr. Ryan was polite, but his message is still loud and clear: He is advocating for government to enter homes to separate loved ones. Three months ago, this would have been denounced. Now, anyone who questions radical proposals like Dr. Ryan’s are met with hostility.

When the pandemic is defeated, it will be reasonable to hope that these overly aggressive officials will shrink back into the woodwork and the extraordinary measures they implemented will be rolled back so that life can return to normal.

Historically, however, previously unprecedented and temporary measures urgently needed in a genuine emergency have a habit of outliving the immediate crisis that spawned them. Just examine the history of the USA PATRIOT Act. Enacted less than two months after September 11, 2001, the PATRIOT Act’s vast expansion of government surveillance has been consistently extended for nearly twenty years with little national debate.

Some pandemic policies will inevitably be lifted. Stay-at-home orders cannot be enforced forever. Other measures are more likely to survive the virus. Federal officials have reportedly been in discussions with big tech companies on how to utilize the massive amounts of data stored on Americans to combat the outbreak. Some have proposed tracking medical treatments and hospital stays. Others have proposed using our cell phone location data to track Americans to determine whether social distancing guidelines and shelter-in-place orders are being obeyed. Once this surveillance is in place, do you believe that Pandora’s box can be closed?

Our Founding Fathers knew that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” As modern Americans in a free society, we too must be eternally vigilant. We must ensure that the pandemic safety policies of today do not become the post-pandemic socialist mandates of tomorrow. Remember that the coronavirus pandemic will be defeated — but that not all extraordinary measures are justified, and not all temporary policies are short-lived.

Rep. Jody Hice, a Republican representing Georgia’s tenth congressional district, is a senior member of the House Oversight Committee and serves as the Communications Chair of the House Freedom Caucus. This Op-Ed originally appeared in the Washington Examiner

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