In the mid-1980s I was able to enjoy a few days of vacation in Israel. Most of the time was spent in and around Jerusalem, but one day I figured I needed to see Tel Aviv.
The public transit bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv was crowded with people of all ages, including at least one teen who was occupied with a textbook. It seemed that at every roadside stop along the way there were soldiers — men and women. At least once, the bus stopped so a soldier could board and look for suspicious people or packages. One saw my small camera bag at my feet. He pointed at it with his rifle and gave me a questioning look. I picked it up and placed it in my lap. That seemed to satisfy him, so he got off the bus and we resumed our trip.
At that time, soldiers were everywhere in Israel. Most of the country was security-conscious given the tensions of that era. For an American who grew up in a more open and relaxed society, it was a different way of life.
Today I get that same feeling. It began with 9/11, when the terrorism that was in the background in Israel came to our shores in a way we could no longer ignore. And now it’s COVID-19 that makes me think things have changed forever.
The civil libertarian in me didn’t like how the government began treating its own citizens like potential terrorists after 9/11. Metal detectors and security guards at public buildings seemed out of place. The governing class no longer trusted the people.
Today I’ll admit I don’t like mask mandates, mainly because they interfere with my breathing. My lungs don’t work as well as they used to. A few days ago, I visited a marine repair facility. A person at the gate took my temperature before I was allowed to enter. A year ago I would have considered that an invasion of my privacy. Today I see it as an acceptable precaution.
The problem of being a more cautious society is that we become more risk-averse. The question of how many restrictions are acceptable in a free and open society is one that we have trouble answering.
The thing is, the more personal the pandemic is, the more likely we are to accept restrictions. A person I knew in Charleston a few years ago lost her husband to COVID-19. Another person I know spent a couple of weeks or more in an ICU. A former coworker here has a daughter who is a third-year nursing student; part of her training involves working in a hospital whose COVID unit is full.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is responding to a spike in COVID cases in that state by bringing back a mask mandate. He says investigators will visit retail stores to make sure people are wearing masks. Some stores could be ordered to shut down if they don’t comply. And last week, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced similar measures will take effect in the Mountain State. It’s like the soldier on the Israeli bus looking for packages that could be bombs in disguise, I guess.
Maybe after we have a vaccine things will ease up. Some things probably won’t. As with 9/11, we’ll have to see how COVID-19 changes American society permanently.