Whether on guns or vaccines, Americans have trouble defining 'liberty'

Freedom is up for debate in today's US

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz puts his hand to his chest while his lawyers ask him to sign a document, on October 20, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Cruz pleaded guilty to all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Florida.  Getty Images / AFP
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2021 should be remembered as a year in which American notions of liberty and security became redefined in stark antagonism along the fault-lines of a bitter national divide.

It has taken two major plagues – the coronavirus pandemic and the uniquely American epidemic of routine mass shootings – to bring this predicament to the forefront. But it now means, effectively, that liberty as many Americans, particularly on the right, define it threatens the health, lives and security of much of the rest of the population.

Americans have always had a relatively libertarian culture, albeit, crucially, in some parts of the country far more than others. Compared to other western societies, the hand of government is quite light on average Americans who can opt out of many forms of social control if they choose.

This liberty has been traditionally understood as personal, private and unlikely to threaten the health, well-being or liberties of other (especially white) citizens, albeit with exceptions until the 1960s allowing for a “freedom” to racially discriminate against African Americans.

A protester holds a sign about racial injustice during a "Justice for Rittenhouse Victims-Abolish White Supremacy" protest in Minneapolis on November 20. AFP

The government was always there to stop crime, impose order and oversee public health and the general welfare.

So, the freedom of other Americans to do as they please may have been offensive or irritating, even obnoxious, but it has rarely been seen as intolerable or existentially threatening.

In 2021, both the anti-vaccine and pro-gun manias demonstrated the increasing gap between Americans

That is no longer the case. 2021 laid bare a new reality in which the refusal of your next-door neighbour to get vaccinated or to practice basic pandemic mitigation poses a direct threat to your own health and that of your family, neighbourhood and broader environment.

It is not a matter of "my body, my choice”, a phrase teasingly pilfered from abortion-rights groups by anti-vaccination right-wingers. If only! But regarding the coronavirus vaccine and mitigation, it is clearly a case of "my body, your illness".

Students in Novi, Michigan, US. Bloomberg

It has been especially galling for people who have, or care for those with, high comorbidity conditions, impaired immune systems, the elderly and, of course, young children.

Closure of schools has been a major bone of contention in 2021, but nothing exacerbated that problem more than the refusal of huge swaths of the population to accept vaccinations, largely because they see it as a proxy for a huge range of other anxieties. Effectively, this is an angry rejection of the government, the broader culture, and the cultural and demographic changes taking place in the US as it becomes less white and Christian; a rage against assumed loss of presumed power and privilege.

These often may be unconscious or liminal sentiments, but the anti-vaccine movement on the right stresses the idea that personal liberty trumps public health, the public good, and any notion of civic responsibility to contain a pandemic that has taken over 800,000 American lives in less than two years.

Jason Rodriguez, outreach supervisor, hangs a banner as families of victims of gun violence gather at the organisation called 'Where Do We Go From Here'  – that helps grieving families that have been affected by gun violence – to drop of memorabilia for the Gun Violence Memorial Project, in New York City, November 11. Getty Images / AFP
Rebecca Turnage joins other families at Where Do We Go From Here to drop of memorabilia for the Gun Violence Memorial Project on November 11. Ms Turnage holds a rosary and photo of her 16-year old son Jaden, who was murdered in September. Getty Images / AFP

This definition of “liberty” not only declines to help the rest of the country avoid becoming ill. It actively contributes to the spread of the disease, its mutation and the broader inability of the society to reduce infections to a manageable point. And it does all that to score some sort of amorphous debating point about how angry such people are about a range of issues that have absolutely nothing to do with the coronavirus, public health, vaccines or masking.

Even former president Donald Trump has received widespread irate right-wing blowback in recent days after praising the vaccine (largely developed under his own administration) and exchanging surprisingly kind words on the topic with current President Joe Biden.

People queue for a Covid-19 test at Times Square in New York City, US, December 26. Reuters

A dead giveaway is that the part of the population that objects so passionately to the coronavirus vaccine has calmly accepted mandates on other vaccinations, wearing seatbelts, speed limits, and all sorts of other measures, often far more sweeping, to keep people safe, especially from each other.

It is not just the pandemic that reveals this growing gap between the ways some Americans define liberty and others seek to protect their security. Gun violence is completely out of control in the US, as the endless raft of random mass murders and school shootings, above all, demonstrate.

School shootings are both routine and a particularly useful insight into this dichotomy. Schoolchildren shooters invariably get their guns from parents, typically because those adults leave these deadly weapons lying around, unsecured and easily accessed.

The recent school shooting in Michigan, in which, for the first time, parents are being charged with involuntary manslaughter because of their extreme negligence towards a troubled child, including providing him the pistol he used as an early "Christmas present", is an excellent example.

Most of the US right, and a solid Supreme Court majority, take an absolutist view of gun rights, rejecting virtually any restrictions on sale, ownership or carrying of deadly weapons. Yet the rest of the country increasingly lives in a kind of terror, particularly regarding schools, because this gun psychosis makes it so easy for disturbed children to follow a now long-established American pattern of taking out their frustrations by mowing down their classmates.

Several recent shooting incidents – such as the one involving 17-year-old vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse who was acquitted of shooting rioters in Wisconsin – reveal another source of terror. In such scenarios, gun-happy Americans bring weapons of war into tense situations, and then successfully justify subsequent shootings by claiming they were afraid their guns might be seized and used against them. Their own deadly weapon becomes not only the means, but also the legal justification, for the killings they perform. It’s a virtual carte blanche.

Kyle Rittenhouse waves to cheering fans as he appears at a panel discussion at a Turning Point USA America Fest 2021 event, on December 20 in Phoenix. The panel discussion, called "Kenosha On Camera," comes a month after Rittenhouse's acquittal on charges in the deadly Kenosha shootings in 2020. AP

The idea that gun madness – including quite possibly the unsecured, locked and loaded guns next door that could easily find their way into the hands of a disturbed teenager or a clueless toddler – poses an unacceptable threat to the security of other Americans is again rejected because of "liberty".

In 2021, both the anti-vaccine and pro-gun manias demonstrated the increasing gap between Americans who fret they're going to have their guns and freedom taken away and others who worry, with good reason, that such freedoms can pose a mortal threat.

There’s an absolutism and burning rage, especially on the right, that makes efforts at balance seem futile.

Across the country these are neighbours who simply do not trust that the guy next door doesn’t pose a major threat to their own rights or safety. That's a recipe for anarchy in a society in profound crisis.

Published: December 28, 2021, 8:00 AM