Notes from the Abyss

The musings of geographer, journalist, and author David M. Lawrence

Cowardice Kills

MECHANICSVILLE — As I write this, I look at two faded booklets. They represented a time when everyone in our nation pulled together for a common good. When everyone recognized that our welfare, even survival, as a nation demanded the sacrifices from all citizens.

Our individual rights were secondary to the welfare of the lives at stake on the front lines in our four-year war against the Axis powers in World War II. Individual convenience was not worth collective defeat.

By the time the war ended with Allied victory in 1945, more than 12 million Americans were in uniform. More than 400,000 service men and women had died. More than 670,000 had been wounded. But the entire population had been mobilized to some extent: they worked in war industries, they volunteered for Civil Defense, they scrimped and saved and recycled our way to victory.

World War II ration books
These were two of my great-grandparents’ war ration books from World War II, when the nation pulled together as one people to defeat multiple threats to our nation’s survival. That pull-together spirit, and the courage (political and otherwise) behind it, are sorely lacking today.

The two booklets I’m looking at are in part symbols and in part vital weapons in that total mobilization for ultimate victory. They are each copies of “War Ration Book Four,” No. 415883 for my great-grandfather, George W. Lawrence, and No. 415884 for my great-grandmother, Freda F. Lawrence.

Each of my great-grandparents signed to an oath: “In accepting this book, I recognize that it remains the property of the United States Government. I will use it only in the manner and for the purposes authorized by the Office of Price Administration.”

Below their signature, it reminded the signees of a government mandate: “It is a criminal offense to violate rationing regulations.”

The rationing regulations issued during World War II placed burdens on consumers and on merchants. Consumers could only buy so much of certain commodities—such as meat, dairy products, coffee and shortening—each week. Merchants could only charge so much for commodities covered by the regulations. The goal of the regulations was to prevent price gouging by merchants and to ensure adequate supplies to feed and arm our troops on the front lines.

People like my great-grandparents did not whine about the infringement of their rights. Instead, they took seriously their responsibility—a word rarely heard these days unless used to describe what other people should be doing—to help this nation earn a victory over the powers determined to subjugate the rest of the world under their murderous regimes.

Defending democracy and human rights may have been our goal, but it was not a goal that could have been achieved without individual responsibility.

If such a crisis struck our nation today, given the venal selfishness of too many in our republic, I fear we would fold in the early months: before a Doolittle Raid, before any victories at Midway, Guadalcanal or North Africa. We wouldn’t have made it to a D-Day.

Case in point: A newly inaugurated governor issued an executive order banning mask mandates in Virginia public schools. Since then, the Hanover County School Board voted unanimously to make mask-wearing optional. The Virginia Senate passed a bill prohibiting local school districts from imposing mask mandates. The argument: Parents have the right to make health decisions for their children.

As arguments go, it is not one without limit. Courts can and do override parental “rights” when a child’s life or welfare is at stake. Also, parents may have a right to make health care decisions for their children, but only for their children. When those decisions impinge upon the rights of others, when those decisions put other people’s children, or their children’s teachers, or school staff, or anyone else at risk, their “rights” hold no moral weight. I doubt that, if push came to shove, they would hold any legal weight.

The recent state and local moves to ban mask mandates reek of idiocy, irresponsibility, and cowardice.

Masks limit the spread of communicable disease. They protect both the wearer, but also those who could be infected by the wearer. Research spanning decades—and quite a bit done since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—proves the efficacy of masks. There is a reason why those who work in health care (including myself, an emergency medical technician) wear them when treating patients—especially those spewing all sorts of potentially infectious bodily fluids out of various orifices on their bodies. I might not avoid the smell in the back of an ambulance, but I can reduce the chance of sharing the illness.

Government officials are tasked with responsibility of protecting the health of every student, of every teacher, of every worker—and of everyone those students, those teachers, and those workers might come into contact with. Their efforts to make mask-wearing optional boosts the sense of entitlement of those who prioritize the exercise of their parental whims over the legitimate health interests of everyone else.

As lessons go, it is a horrid lesson to teach our students. The answer to the Biblical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper,” is, according to the example given by the governor, the school board, and the state legislature, “No. Whatever happens to my brother is his problem.”

Finally, our government officials should have been the grown-ups in the room when they voted to eliminate the mask mandate. Again, given their responsibility to protect the health of every student, teacher, worker, etc., they had an obligation to tell those who believe otherwise, “Sorry, but we have to protect the health of all.”

The governor, legislature and school board lack the courage to do what needs to be done.

All we can do now is hope for the best, because we clearly can’t be bothered to make prudent preparations for the worst.

Fair warning: If this is the way we insist on responding to future crises, we’re doomed.


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