By Kavita Das
America, “the land of the free, and the home of the brave” has long been a beacon to people around the world who journeyed to this country seeking freedom from political, cultural, or religious tyranny. We tout ourselves as a country where everyone is free to be who they are and live out their ideals. But America’s brand of absolute freedom can be lethal. Our red, white, and blue banner of freedom cloaks selfishness and greed.
As children, we’re taught that our own freedom ends as soon as it infringes on the freedom of others or brings them harm. But this basic lesson is one that this country has had to learn over and over again, only to fail to live up to it. And these failures are deadly.
We extol our right to free speech, especially when comparing ourselves to countries where citizens are jailed, tortured, or killed when speaking against the powers that be. However, our freedom of speech is not absolute. We came to understand that even this fundamental freedom needed to be curbed to protect against those whose speech incites violence. And yet, we have no recourse from the harmful lies our President has uttered about this pandemic which has infected more than 4.4 million and claimed more than 150,000 lives under his watch.
When it comes to the freedom to bear arms, however, our country takes absolutism as far as it can go. Arms have been interpreted to not just be personal handguns but also military grade assault weapons that can and have caused mass casualties. And instead of protecting the 100,000 Americans who are victims of gun violence each year, many states have passed Stand Your Ground laws that allow those who shoot others to claim self-defense.
But the lethalness of our obsession with personal freedom has never been so pervasive than during this pandemic. Even as the numbers of people who were infected and who died from coronavirus climbed during the initial wave of the virus, in state capitols across the country, swaths of Americans showed up mask-less and with automatic weapons strapped to their backs to protest protective sheltering in place policies, demanding that their businesses be allowed to reopen. Their livelihoods were more important than others’ lives.
In truth, our national and local economies are in dire straits, with more than 40 million people, or one in four Americans, filing for unemployment. But instead of fighting for systemic changes like a livable wage or guaranteed universal income, which are buoying workers in other countries while they shelter in place, the promise of restoring local economies pushed states to reopen retail businesses prematurely, fueling record numbers of coronavirus cases.
Beyond this, many of these “re-open” protesters oppose having to wear masks, which they see as not just a mere inconvenience but an assault on their personal, bodily freedom despite the fact that research has shown that wearing masks helps prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Even as health care workers were forced to battle COVID-19 in hospitals across the country without masks and other essential protective gear for weeks, “re-open” protesters ranted about how being forced to wear masks infringes on their freedom. What is lifesaving gear to doctors, patients, and immune compromised individuals is tyranny to them. Ultimately, in this country, their absolute freedom trumps others’ right to life.
Our dangerous obsession with personal freedom has been hiding in plain sight and permitted to fester. As we wait for the development of a vaccine—our best hope against the coronavirus pandemic—our country has sacrificed protection from virulent but vaccine-preventable diseases by allowing people to exempt themselves from getting vaccinated based on their personal beliefs. In fact, most states currently allow personal belief exemptions. So, if and when a coronavirus vaccine is developed, should we allow personal freedom to trump public health, risking ongoing future outbreaks?
As a nation, our strength and resilience lie not just in our individual freedoms and fortunes but in our collective concern. We need look no further for evidence of this than the images of the recent protests for racial justice and equity in cities and towns across the country these past several weeks. Thousands of Black, white, and brown people have been using their freedom of speech and assembly to lift their voices and march in solidarity. Most while wearing masks. Initial research suggests that these protests, despite the lack of social distancing, did not cause a spike in infections, likely because so many protesters wore masks. Meanwhile, in states that allowed bars, restaurants, and other retail businesses, including hair stylists and bowling alleys, to reopen, photos of mask-less crowds flocking to these establishments were followed a few weeks later by skyrocketing infection rates.
These scenarios illustrate two Americas. In one America, they wear masks and embody civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s proclamation, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” In the other, given the chance to protect the lives of fellow Americans by donning masks, they refuse.
About the Author
Kavita Das writes about culture, race, gender, and their intersections. Nominated for a 2016 Pushcart Prize, Kavita’s work has been published in CNN, Teen Vogue, Catapult, Fast Company, Tin House, Longreads, The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Washington Post, Kenyon Review, NBC News Asian America, Guernica, Quartz, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar (Harper Collins India), a biography about the Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer, was published in June 2019. Kavita is at work on her next book, Sparking Change on the Page: Lessons and Reflections on Writing About Social Issues (Beacon Press, Fall 2022). Find her on Twitter: @kavitamix.