In 2020, governments around the world began locking down their populations in an effort to prevent the spread of a respiratory virus. Citizens complied initially, eager to do what they could to protect themselves and their neighbors. It would only be a few weeks, right? Soon it became clear that there was no end in sight, that the virus was highly contagious, and that government mandates were not always based on medical necessity. By then, however, it was difficult to resist. Businesses and schools were closed, and masks were required to enter any building, if it was open at all.
The time to resist was at the beginning, before the rules had hardened, before people had become habituated to the new order. No one, however, imagined that governments would go to such extremes over a virus that proved to be far less lethal than predicted. No one thought that they would be so enamored of their restrictions that they would be reluctant to give them up.
We were not accustomed to disobedience. We trusted our elected officials, our neighbors, the good sense of our fellow citizens. We were used to pulling together to help each other, whether it be in the aftermath of a natural disaster or to fight a war. We trusted scientists to follow the data, to question assumptions, to test their hypotheses, to demand proof. We trusted officials to balance the costs and benefits of the measures they took, and always act within constitutional bounds. We trusted too much.
In her book, “Mothers in the Fatherland,” Claudia Koonz, in a chapter on those who resisted the Nazis, says that the brave souls who risked their lives protecting Jews were not acting generously for the first time. They were people, of different faiths or no faith, who had made it a habit to do good. Doing good, doing the right thing, should become a habit, so that when we need to do the right thing, it is instinctive. A commentator on the town of Chambon-sur-Lignon in France, where inhabitants saved thousands of Jews during World War II, said “Those who hesitate do not act; those who act do not hesitate.” Chambon and its neighboring towns are inhabitants are Protestants in a Catholic country with a history of religious conflict. They were long accustomed to being out of step with society, they had practice in resisting governmental pressure.
So let’s practice small acts of disobedience when confronted with irrational demands for masking, unnecessary medical procedures, absurd restrictions. Let’s rock the boat a little, cause our neighbors some discomfort, set tongues a-wagging. We want to make sure that, should we be faced with a more serious threat, we are fit for the challenge.
Janice Sebring is the author of Fearful Breakers, published in September 2023.