Today is Memorial Day in the United States.
For those of you who are reading this elsewhere, Memorial Day is part of that broad subset of public holidays set aside to honor those who served in the nation’s armed forces. Most countries have such holidays, and why wouldn't they? It’s a group that deserves to be honored. The US actually has two such holidays that most people know about, each with a slightly different emphasis, as well as several smaller ones (“Armed Forces Day,” anyone?). But the two big ones are Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
Veterans Day comes in November, and itself has two related but not altogether compatible emphases. It’s in November because it started out as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I, which officially ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – a fine bit of poetry that no doubt cost some poor soldier his life while the seconds ticked down. The war ended with an Armistice, which was grimly appropriate for a muddled and seemingly pointless meat-grinder of a war. The holiday became Veterans Day after World War II, an altogether more clear-cut and triumphant conflict from the American perspective. Veterans Day honors those who go to war. Armistice Day, however, honors those who return, an altogether quieter and more reflective holiday and one we should bring back.
Memorial Day honors those who go to war and don’t return – those who have sacrificed their lives to defend the rights, liberties and freedoms of the United States. Yes, I know those rights, liberties and freedoms are qualified and circumscribed – much of American history can be read as a long and often backsliding effort to broaden their reach to excluded groups, and it is clear that this effort still has a long way to go – but the point remains. Those rights, liberties and freedoms are ideals worth sacrificing for and those who do so deserve to be honored.
Which is why this Memorial Day is so disheartening.
Too many Americans today have lost sight of what rights, liberties and freedoms are. They have reached the irresponsible and frankly juvenile conclusion that rights, liberties and freedoms mean they can do whatever they want, whenever they want to, regardless of the consequences to anyone else.
This is a toddler’s view of those things, and to be honest it’s embarrassing. We should be better than that.
We are in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century and too many low-information people are out there screaming about their rights and their liberties and their freedoms as if they were absolutes that could never be infringed by any public safety measure – a doctrine alien to the Constitution and the law. They insist that the mild inconvenience of wearing a mask or not having a pool party is somehow a grave threat to their freedom.
Here’s a hint. It’s not. And those who say otherwise are trivializing the sacrifices made by better people on their behalf.
The lockdowns and the quarantines are well within the scope of the Constitution and the law. The Founding Fathers themselves put them in place during the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s, after all, and they knew the Constitution far better than the average American today. Wearing a mask is a temporary inconvenience, not an assault on liberty.
This is, in fact, settled law.
As explained by Supreme Court Justice John Harlan in Jacobson v Massachusetts (1905), “[T]he liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members. … [I]n every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”
Too many people in this country need to grow up and get over themselves.
On this Memorial Day, remember those who sacrificed for your rights, your liberties, and your freedoms, and honor their example, not with petulant displays of arrogance and disregard for your fellow Americans, but with respect for the nation as a whole.