Jeanne Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan administration, is in trouble with the law. Apparently, she left her poodle in her automobile while going into a shop. Worse still, she did so despite a sign posted right where she had parked the car. It reads: "Pets Die in Hot Cars! It's Against the Law. If You See It, Report It! Call 911 Immediately."
Forty years ago, when I arrived on these shores, Americans regularly poked fun at Germany's proclivity for prohibiting all manner of normal human activity -- from walking on grass to taking pictures near a railway line -- giving rise to a society permanently ensconced in a straitjacket of excessive legislation. Use of the actual German word verboten (forbidden) signified the disagreement Americans had with the idea of regulating the daylight out of human conduct.
That was then.
Currently, America is adopting more and more of the thoroughly alien political philosophy that holds people cannot be permitted to act on their free volition, or else their base urges and thoughtless egotism will frustrate construction of the perfect world.
Actually, the miracle we call America has brought forth a breed of human being noted for its desire to do the right thing because common decency and common sense combine to guide common standards of conduct. As anxiety about meeting basic needs subsided, so each generation rose higher on the ladder of civilization, with genuine and lasting results.
Coercion and the threat of punishment produce the opposite, as they deprive people of individual discretion. Resentment builds, counting the hours, then minutes, until tyranny is brought down at last.
That is the story of Germany, as well as of France, Russia, Spain, Italy. That is why the one-way traffic to America has continued for a very long time.
But now, the pestilence that turns the law from the greatest blessing into a hated tyrant has infested our land. Human interaction across a broad spectrum came to be forbidden in recent years, or regulated to the point where it amounts to a prohibition for all practical intents and purposes.
It is forbidden to call persons and things what they are. It's forbidden to disapprove of persons or of their conduct. It's forbidden to make or tell jokes if someone might find them offensive, and selected groups have been endowed with the right to declare anything offensive to their hearts' content. Punishment may be expulsion from school, loss of employment or financial ruin rather than prison, but punishment there will be.
It's forbidden to show up for a flight without identity documents, one of which must be issued by government and include a photograph. It's forbidden to go near a gate or to enter a public building without going through a metal detector. It's forbidden to sit in an airplane without the seat belt fastened when the seat belt sign is off. It's forbidden to disobey crew member instructions, and it is a federal crime to tamper with smoke detectors in the lavatory.
Because, of course, it's forbidden to smoke.
It's forbidden to operate a business with no wheelchair access. It's forbidden to hold a concert in an auditorium with no wheelchair access. It's forbidden to ask essential questions of a prospective employee. It's forbidden to enter into any employment agreement, however satisfactory to the parties, if it does not comply with the whims of government. It's forbidden to deny a sublease of your home to a person you consider undesirable. It's forbidden for a goose to eat a Kanab amber snail.
It's forbidden to use your own money for your own medical care the way you think is in your own best interest, after a certain age. It's forbidden to say things to or about women, or to touch them, at any age. Six-year-olds are now the object of the hysteria that has replaced nature's arrangements in the relationship of the sexes, and 6-year-olds are subject to government surveillance whether through the pretext of immunization or a school-to-work program. It's forbidden for parents to bring up their children as they believe it would be best for the children. It's forbidden to drive along Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House.
And, naturally, most any place, it's forbidden to smoke.
Smoking is the recurring theme because it has been the great test: Will Americans give up their liberties if the initial purpose appears to make sense and the strangulation is gradual?
We know the answer.
For sure, smoking is a health hazard. But that had little to do with the true purpose of the campaign.
For sure, all prohibitions begin with an honorable and desirable purpose. Seat belts save lives. Employment practices ought to be fair and equitable. It is great that our society can afford to build ramps everywhere and thus offer mobility to people confined to wheelchairs. Men should treat women with dignity and courtesy. (Also vice versa.)
And dogs are at risk in hot cars.
But in an American America, those were manners of conduct to be encouraged and cultivated, prompted by principle and pride, rewarded by life in a variety of ways. Now they have become the domain of commissars who claim to know how all the rest of us ought to behave. And they have captured and corrupted the law.
Remember the sign next to Mrs. Kirkpatrick's car? "Pets Die in Hot Cars! It's Against the Law. If You See It, Report It! Call 911 Immediately."
"Pets Die in Hot Cars!" Yes, we are in America. Someone cares about something and reminds fellow citizens.
"It's Against the Law." Oops! We have entered Verbotenland.
"If You See It, Report It!" Here is the precipice. Americans are now encouraged to inform on one another. And it starts early. Children are taught to inform on their friends and teachers -- and most of all on their parents.
In Hungary, I lived under two regimes that based their existences on that practice.
Are we certain we want America to go that way?
Balint Vazsonyi is author of "America's 30 Years War: Who Is Winning?" and director of the Center for the American Founding.
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