The Risk of a Society with One Correct Narrative and the Rise of the Police State

Bradley Tanner, MD, ME, MBA
April 7, 2020

We can improve the outcome from the pandemic if we question the narrative, demand consideration of alternatives, and resist our country becoming a permanent police state.

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We can improve the outcome from the pandemic if we question the narrative, demand consideration of alternatives, and resist our country becoming a permanent police state.

Lack of Dissent Leads to Poor Outcome: The biggest lesson from the 1918 Spanish Flu and COVID-19 pandemic is that we need governments and society must be willing to let people express their opinion; absent that, more people die. In 1918 the government used the Sedition Act to shut down efforts to provide information that might potentially interfere with the war effort in 1918. The result was a pandemic that killed more than the war. In the early stage of the infection, China shut down health care providers who found that novel pneumonia existed. Chinese leaders followed a similar strategy of squelching opinion and input that countered the official narrative. The virus exploded.

If the government was open to ideas, it could have been stopped at its earliest ages. Early identification would have allowed the detection and creation of containment solutions, as were successfully implemented in other viral outbreaks. That didn't happen, and the global deaths are because of that silence, and the world can blame the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic on China's centralized control.

This is not China-bashing; this is the danger of the police state. Warnings were provided and ignored. The virus spread rapidly and out of control, unlike other similar viruses. The lesson is clear. It is dangerous to allow a government to control the dialog or to insist there a single narrative as the only solution.

A Single Narrative Even Now: How does that relate to the response to the virus now? In 1918 we needed more medical information, and the government didn't allow it. Now we need input from others outside of medicine who see other risks and costs besides human life lost due to SARS-CoV-2 infection. We are seeing a problem mirroring 1918 and China at the start of this infection. In our country, there is a single narrative that is being spread without allowance for or willingness to consider alternative narratives, which may have more validity. We don't need a Sedition Act to control the narrative this time. We have ever-present media that is disseminating fear and panic and demanding that our country "pull together" into a common narrative. Consider the news and the daily briefing that repeat the same message over and over, and watch that video from Apple Computer in 1984.

Our democracy is our strength and limiting freedom of opinions and solutions or to discard them is to not adhere to the values of our democracy. We must preserve our democracy and to remain open to new ideas. And the lesson from 1918 and 2020 China is shutting off ideas is very dangerous.

At this time our leadership provides a single narrative almost completely being driven by the physicians guiding the President and the state governors. Input from physicians is fine, but physicians come with a particular emphasis, the preservation of life at all costs. We see little input clearly from economists, social scientists, ethicists, mathematicians, and others who could provide an alternative opinion. We don't see a comprehensive solution that considers all issues, but instead, a single narrative focused on "flattening the curve to protect the health care system".

By dominating the airspace and exposing to the public to a constant barrage of depressing news, death stories, images of misbehavior from non-believers, and warnings that young people die too, the governments of both federal and states are pushing a single narrative. That strategy has effectively shut down opinions counter to the narrative.

There are two complementary components: 1) uniform population-wide distancing of individuals, shutting down activity, and isolating individuals is the only solution and must continue as long as is necessary, 2) we must adhere to a “better the safe than sorry” strategy that warns us that any risk of an additional death is too great, all such risks must be avoided, and we must safely ignore all other risks and negative outcomes and simply focus on the single narrative.

The two work together in quite beautiful ways and feed each other. They provide the police state foot soldiers among us with a “how dare you risk the lives of someone else?” message that reinforces compliance. This strategy is so successful at exercising control that governments throughout the globe are implementing it, including ones with rich democratic and freedom principals.

A single narrative is dangerous, and we must challenge the assumptions of both of the above-espoused truths.

Is distancing, shutting down the economy, isolating individuals, and implementing police controls the best strategy? We must ask ourselves, why are we not willing to take a risk, however small, that deviates from the narrative in fear of a worse outcome? If the rest of society from finance to football often accepts a risk/reward structure, why is it wrong to not take a measured risk in the hope of a reward of knowledge that lets us take an entirely different track with much better outcomes? Why are we so afraid of taking a risk and so willing to avoid the potential of better outcomes?

The Rise of the Police State: The answer, sadly, is the comfort that our leaders have with a police state. I use the world police state intentionally to make it clear where we are and where we are going. It is increasingly apparent that our leaders want citizens to behave and various countries, states, and counties are willing to use police power to cite, fine, and sometimes jail [in a world where jail means being infected] individuals to ensure they behave as they are directed. We have woken up in the nightmare that is a repressive government, and we are told to be thankful the government is looking out for us. This is the 2020 dystopian novel.

In fact, some individuals, states, and nations are highlighting the benefits of the China model of autocracy, one of the most repressive regimes ever created, as examples of what we should all do. What do we need? Apps on our phone and face-recognition cameras that identify who we are and where we are so the government can tag us as, track who we have contact with, and control our movements. Consider the police power of current China and ask yourself if this is a world you ever imagined outside of a dystopia?

Months ago, no one would have believed the governments of the world could so quickly devolve into police states. But in a few months, the separation of church and state is gone as the government shuts down churches. They have stopped freedom of movement and assembly. Businesses are told to stop and what they should do produce. The free press repeats the same message. Are they afraid they would be taken over if they provided a different message? Even the legal and judicial segments of society are silent. We had laws to protect the public from tuberculosis and hurricanes. Now they create massive control over the populace consistent with a police state. The legal experts have not commented on the use of those laws; are they also so fearful and panic-stricken that they too dare not challenge the single narrative?

The new reality. Throughout the world, we accept the ability of the government to shut down churches, businesses, and other activities to protect us. We feel that the government can control the movement, assemble in groups, and recreate. Look carefully at life in China, Russia, and locked down New Zealand, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, and you will the same and consistent examples of police power. Governments have attempted to establish borders between US states and, in an extreme case, as shown in Rhode Island, were asking police to go house-to-house to discuss with individuals who dared to travel from New York. This was since stopped, thankfully, bringing the police to your door looked to be a bit too similar to some of the horrors of Nazi Germany (or present China, Russia, and the world in The Matrix).

For a US citizen, this is a clear violation of much of what we hold dear in the Constitution and much of which we have fought for over centuries. And yet it is being taken away without an even a discussion. I am hopeful that the institution of such police powers would not have been possible were not for the COVID-19 pandemic. But I use the word hope. The lack of response leads one to question if we really needed the pandemic for this to happen. If this is where we were going, then the silver lining of this pandemic, it that unlike the frog slowly dying in a slowly heated beaker, we have been plunged into boiling water. My hope is we can see the police state and what it means; hop out of the scalding water and stop the horror of a police state before it becomes the norm.

Will these restrictions go away? Many proceed with the assumption that even though we have given the government these extraordinary powers, it will undoubtedly relinquish any kind of control. Consider the Patriot Act, which is still in place as well as the rapid growth of the NSA, which is also still in place. Rather than hope the government does the right thing, we need to be proactive and to expect and demand that our government upholds values that we hold dear after this crisis has ended.

But even that is too late. Why are we assuming this crisis ends? What if it never ends? What if the government can keep "protecting" us from repeat bouts of the virus? The narrative already includes warnings that it might last a long time or that it comes back or we have to ready the next time. We keep hearing that the limitations are going to expire on a specific date, but are then "extended." Occasionally our leaders are more honest and say they are "indefinite," or we will likely need to do this again. Given the speed, swiftness, and acceptance of police state powers, why should we assume they will ever go away?

That is precisely the question we need to ask. What if the current police state, limited freedoms, and government power become the norm?

We cannot wait for the glorious day when life comes back exactly as it was. We need to demand now that our leaders respect the freedoms that fought for over centuries and do not slowly guide us toward (or remain within) a police state. Most importantly, any restraint on personal liberty must have a clear mandate as well as a precise expiration date. We need evidence that these powers are constitutional and will expire and will become illegal. Eventually, we need to see a date when these extraordinary powers of the government will be removed automatically or we as citizens get to vote freely to agree that such government control is acceptable within the confines of the constitution. Otherwise, we don't live in a democracy anymore and don't have a constitution.

We must implement that effort even now, even when we are fearful and panicking. Why? Because government control worsened the 1918 Flu and gave us this pandemic. We must demand a free and open society and cannot give that up. And in this case, we need to have a second narrative so we can investigate another path to survival that is not based on distancing, fear, threats, isolation, and government control.


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