Commentary: Americans should heed military leaders’ words

By Don Flood

Both locally and nationally, we’ve been having a vigorous debate about our rights.

One recent letter writer (“Protect liberty for next ‘emergency,’” May 4) complained of insomnia, caused not by the coronavirus-related loss of thousands of lives and millions of jobs but from the “hit our liberties are taking.”

Here, we’re facing the worst public health and economic emergency of our generation and the writer’s chief concern was for our personal liberties.

But perhaps there was cause for alarm. Liberties, once lost, are not easily regained.

Fortunately, the writer was specific about what triggered her letter: Gov. Carney’s state of emergency declaration requiring people to wear face masks in public spaces.

Don Flood

And that’s where she lost me.

What right is she upholding? The right to infect others? The right to act irresponsibly?

I wonder if the letter writer could explain that right to health care professionals risking their health – and the health of their families – to treat people suffering from the coronavirus.

And to those risking their health to keep us well-fed and well supplied with household goods.

In ninth grade civics class, I learned that our right to swing our fists ended where another person’s nose began.

Simplistic perhaps, but the old saw applies remarkably well to our present emergency. Our right to breathe out and possibly spread a lethal virus ends where another person’s nose begins.

That’s why we’re wearing masks. It’s not so much about protecting ourselves, as it is about protecting others.

During World War II, the government ordered businesses to manufacture military equipment; issued ration cards restricting the consumption of consumer goods; and required businesses and citizens to cover their windows at night to prevent light from escaping.

And of course, millions of men were drafted.

Somehow, having to wear a face mask doesn’t sound like such a big deal.

Now, here’s a big deal: President Donald Trump, with the aid of federal law enforcement, is attacking our First Amendment rights.

Oddly, the same people so upset about an imaginary right not to wear a face mask don’t seem nearly as concerned about an all-too-real assault on one of our most basic freedoms: the right to peaceably assemble.

And I mean “assault” in the literal sense.

On Monday, federal law enforcement, using tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets, cleared peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square to allow a cheap political stunt by President Trump.

The president, accompanied by his entourage, walked to nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church and theatrically posed with a Bible for a photo op. This from the man who displayed his enthusiasm for the Christian faith by tweeting, “HAPPY GOOD FRIDAY TO ALL!”

James Mattis, a retired four-star general and President Trump’s former secretary of defense, was so alarmed by the president’s actions that he delivered the most scathing criticism that I’ve ever seen from a former Cabinet member of a sitting president.

I will quote it only in part. It deserves to be read in full:

“I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled. The words ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand – one that all of us should be able to get behind.”

Or consider this from Mike Mullen, a retired admiral and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel – including members of the National Guard – forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church …

“Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country.”

But most ominous was the message from Army Gen. Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to all American service members:

“We all committed our lives to the idea that is America. We will stay true to that oath and the American people.

“Every member of the U.S. military swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the values embedded within it. This document is founded on the essential principles that all men and women are born free and equal and should be treated with respect and dignity. It also gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.”

The memo was dated June 2, the day after President Trump’s grotesque spectacle at Lafayette Square.

Our top military leaders, current and retired, seem to be delivering a warning we ignore at the peril of our cherished freedoms. They fear not only our loss of rights but also the president’s willingness to use our armed forces to further his political ends.

Still upset about wearing that mask?

Don Flood is a former newspaper editor who lives in Lewes.