Death and tragedy were front and center in the news again last week.
In Winston-Salem, a high school student was shot and killed by another child. Only a few hours later, tragedy was mercifully avoided at a Raleigh high school when two guns were taken from a student who had brought them to campus. A day after that, another Winston-Salem child — this one just 2 years old — died when a gun was discharged in his grandmother’s home.
Meanwhile, in hospitals across North Carolina and the nation, intensive care units were packed to the rafters with desperately ill and dying COVID-19 patients, the overwhelming majority of whom did not avail themselves of free and widely available vaccines. The pandemic death toll in North Carolina alone inched closer to 15,000.
Meanwhile, a devastating hurricane — fueled, scientists have confirmed, by climate change and the steadily rising ocean water temperatures — wreaked havoc from Louisiana to New England. Dozens died.
What do these three seemingly disparate tragedies have in common?
At first blush, not much. Save for the obvious shared timing, one might reasonably observe that each was the byproduct of countless and unrelated precursor events — acts of nature, bad human decisions, unlucky coincidences.
Look a little closer, however, and a different picture starts to come into focus — especially when one contemplates the public policy implications.
The common factor: the way Americans have allowed the concept of “freedom” to be perverted and, in effect, dumbed down over the last half century.
Think about it.
There are obviously many factors at play in the pandemic of gun violence that plagues our nation, but at the heart of the matter is the simple fact that we are drowning in an ocean of poorly regulated, easy-to-access firearms.
And this fact, in turn, is the undeniable byproduct of the modern gun lobby’s huge success in muddling and altering American understandings of “freedom,” so that a concept that traditionally connoted and implicated important ideas like responsibility and citizenship in addition to personal liberty, now for many means little more than “license” — the right to do pretty much whatever one wants.
A similar pattern is clearly at play in the COVID-19 pandemic.
A half century ago, the idea of mass resistance to public health vaccinations was largely unthinkable and rightfully dismissed by most Americans as akin to the paranoid claims of the lunatic fringe in equating water fluoridation with totalitarianism.
This acceptance did not arise because vaccination was risk-free. While most people were thankful for the personal health benefits they and their children would likely enjoy from vaccination, there was also a common understanding that vaccination was a public duty, a small sacrifice that one made as an act of citizenship in a free society.
Today, after decades of well-funded, anti-government propaganda from the far right, a sizable chunk of the population rejects the citizenship component of freedom, and our morgues and hospital ICU’s offer stark testimony to the impact of the shift.
The same tragic perversion of freedom fuels the global climate emergency.
Scientists have documented that the intensity and destructive power of Hurricane Ida, the drought and wildfires that plague the western U.S., and numerous other extreme weather events that are increasingly a part of the “new normal,” are directly linked to our species’ fossil fuel addiction.
If ever there was a moment for humanity to take urgent action and do everything within its power to tackle a crisis before it’s too late, this is it.
Tragically, however, politicians of the right — including the leaders of the N.C. General Assembly — keep erecting roadblocks to obvious, common-good solutions. Like their 20th century predecessors who once denied the dangers of smoking and resisted efforts to regulate its use in public as an assault on “freedom,” they stubbornly defend the “right” of corporations and individuals to extract and consume as much oil, gas and coal as the “genius of the free market” dictates.
Meanwhile, the planet our children and grandchildren will inherit grows evermore unrecognizable by the moment.
None of this is to say, of course, that any group or ideology has always had a monopoly on the best definitions of freedom. Just as the conservative practitioners and defenders of slavery egregiously perverted the concept throughout the nation’s early history, many of the left badly misfired with their brief and ignorant embrace of Soviet communism in 1920s and ’30s.
At present, however, the pendulum has swung dangerously in an extreme direction, and that hard truth jeopardizes societal and planetary well-being in myriad ways.
Indeed, given the rapid and troubling rise in far-right paranoia and vigilantism — a phenomenon that’s even infected the Republican Party — it’s hard not to be reminded of historian Will Durant’s warning that “when liberty becomes license, dictatorship is near.”