Clear and Present Danger: The Questions We Should Be Contemplating Now

by jimowensjr

With the disruption daily life that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, many of us were willingly limiting our contact with others long before the imposition of state-mandated stay-at-home orders. We did, and continue to do so recognizing our responsibility to our families, friends, neighbors, and the people we work with, as well as to protect ourselves from the virus.  But in so doing, as the state has rightly—for now—mandated limitations on our liberties, several interesting questions arise.  How we answer them may profoundly affect our future, both in the short and long term.

Though I’m no legal scholar—and I didn’t stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night—I have spent some time contemplating the First Amendment. It guarantees, among other things, our freedom of speech, right to assembly, and grants Americans the freedom to worship as they will.  Case law has also set out parameters in which the government may limit those freedoms in the event of a clear and present danger and/or compelling public interest.

The novel coronavirus, for many of us, seems to meet the test of a clear and present danger—again, for now.  But we are required to limit our assembly with one another (including worship), businesses are required to close their doors or dramatically change their business model, and thousands of people are losing their sources of income, we, along with our elected officials must ask how we will define when the “clear and present danger” has passed? 

Clearly, this is new territory for this generation of our scientists and government officials.  As many pundits and politicians cast stones at one another, attempting to lay blame and gain advantage from for the impact of the virus, we would do well to ask them “under what circumstances shall we restore our freedom of assembly, freedom of worship, and allow ourselves the ability to allow us to choose, wittingly or not, what risks we will take?”  How will we know when the state’s compelling public interest is no longer outweighed by our individual interests?  Will it be when the “curve” has flattened?  When transmission rates fall to a specific number?   When we have enough masks, ventilators, and medicine to treat the ill?  Or only be when we have developed a vaccine or find an effective treatment?

I won’t claim to know the answers to these questions.  And while my words may be distorted by extremists of all ilk, those of us who would think reasonably about such matters should be searching for those answers.  Leadership requires contemplation about the future.   Let’s hope our elected officials are contemplating more than just the next sound bite or how they can find political advantage in the midst of this challenge.