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Vigliotti: The Constitution matters more than ever during an emergency such as the coronavirus crisis

There are two divergent modes of thought on the quarantine due to coronavirus. There are some who believe we cannot risk being too safe; and there are those who feel we are doing ourselves more harm than good. The truth is there is a point at which things can go too far.

Both perspectives are reasonably grounded. Those who seek a sustained shutdown are concerned about a worsening of infection and mortality rates, while those who seek a resolution to the lockdown are troubled by personal, social, economic, and constitutional reasoning.

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Most Americans seemed willing to respect social distancing, quarantining, and employing protective measures early on – voluntarily. After all, who wanted to risk getting sick from a virus that was largely unknown in our country? Everyone wanted to do what they could to help, even if it was staying at home, using 3D printers to produce personal protective equipment, sewing masks, donating food and more. Carroll County residents have been extraordinary in their generosity.

Even when the first rounds of mandated shutdown occurred, most Americans were willing to listen because they wanted to flatten the curve of infections, and because there were set periods of time for those shutdowns. They knew things would be tough, but were willing to take on their role. But two weeks of quarantine became three or four; and then suddenly the winter became the spring, and the amount of virus information — sometimes seemingly contradictory — surged.

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Meanwhile, thousands have died. More than 800,000 Americans are known to have contracted the illness. More than 20 million Americans have gone out of work. The economy is ruptured. Friendships, families, and love have been strained by isolation.

Americans are not unfamiliar with sacrifice. During World War II, for example, food, gasoline, electricity, and more were rationed in order to conserve and provide for the war effort against tyranny. Indeed, a lot of comparisons were made between early experiences with coronavirus and the second World War.

The analogy goes only so far. It’s one thing to find that the local grocery store doesn’t have toilet paper or that you can’t go out to dinner for your birthday. It’s another thing entirely to be arrested in front of your child at a playground for violating quarantine restrictions. When Americans see this, they know their elected leaders have gone too far in their legal prescriptions.

The difference between the two perspectives over quarantine has become divisive. Some of those who favor a sustained quarantine have wished death on those who don’t; and some of those who don’t have accused those who do of statism. It is wrong to cheer for the death of fellow Americans who want the country reopened, and there are some — like the governor of Michigan — who have taken quarantine to an extreme.

Americans are hurting. President Trump’s call for a safe reopening of the economy and society recognizes this, approaching the problem from a commonsense, middle ground. Many of America’s governors are realizing this as well. The governor of Georgia is slated to begin opening up his state this weekend, while our own governor is set today to begin stepping back restrictions with urging from Carroll’s delegation. Meanwhile, Carroll’s commissioners have stepped forward to reopen the landfill.

It is important to remember that no sincere elected leader wants to be responsible for an order that causes harm in terms of human life or human freedom. What were initially intended to be practical safety measures have stirred a necessary debate about constitutional rights as many of those measures have become excessive, and a critical discussion about the long-term health of the United States is directly related to it.

As Attorney General William Barr and others have rightly noted, constitutional rights don’t disappear in an emergency, whether it is during wartime or pandemics. The Constitution is especially crucial in moments of trial and uncertainty, because it is then that who we are and what we believe in is not only in practice, but matters most to us as individuals. If what we cherish cannot withstand an emergency, how can we expect it to withstand the peace?

In common law countries like the United States, what is past is prologue — and precedents will shape the future. The experience of internment camps during World War II, for example, meant that in subsequent wars, such as the war on terror, internment camps were never utilized.

We can learn and grow from our present circumstances, too, and we can counter the excesses. Barr has indicated that the Department of Justice could side with American citizens suing over such extreme cases — and the DOJ should.

Part of preparing for the next pandemic means not only stockpiling medical supplies and equipment, but evaluating social and legal protocols under such an occasion. Being safe and being free are not mutually exclusive. We will get through this.

Joe Vigliotti, a contributor to The Flip Side and a Taneytown city councilman, writes from Taneytown. His column appears every other Friday. Email him through his website at www.jvigliotti.com.

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