Numerous people, including myself right here on this blog, have characterized government policies designed to combat COVID-19 as tyrannical. Dictionary.com has several definitions of “tyranny,” including “arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority,” “oppressive or unjustly severe government on the part of any ruler,” and “undue severity or harshness.” In my opinion, the stay-at-home orders unilaterally imposed by governors across the country, prohibiting citizens from moving about freely and conducting their daily lives, fit this definition perfectly. But in a recent column, journalist and political consultant Gary Pearce dismisses the arguments against these authoritarian policies and claims instead that systemic racism is the real tyranny.
Pearce derisively writes that “people across North Carolina and the nation protested against what they called the ‘tyranny’ of COVID-19 restrictions that kept them from bars, gyms and hair salons for a few months.” He claims, “COVID restrictions aren’t tyranny. They’re an inconvenience during a public health crisis.” What Americans should truly be concerned about, according to Pearce, is “the tyranny of racism that has terrorized African Americans for centuries and continues today.”
While some of the examples that Pearce lists, such as slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow laws, arguably constitute tyranny, these things have long ago been abolished. Other examples that he mentions do (at least occasionally) happen today: lynchings, beatings, and instances of police brutality such as that which took the life of George Floyd, for example. But while I would never deny (nor would anyone in their right mind) that these things are horrible and unquestioningly violate the rights of their victims, they do not constitute tyranny. This is because these actions are not carried out as part of a deliberate government policy but are isolated incidents, almost universally condemned and punished just as any other crime would be. Crimes committed by individual people, as wrong as they are, are not tyranny.
Pearce also alleges that the police response to the Black Lives Matter protests constitutes tyranny. He criticizes police officers’ “menacing presence,” their use of clubs, tear gas, and rubber bullets against protesters, and their armored cars, riot gear, and semiautomatic weapons. “Sometimes the police looked more like military units,” he writes. How can the way that police officers look, the weapons that they carry, the gear that they wear, or the vehicles that they drive, constitute tyranny? As for the use of clubs, tear gas, and rubber bullets against protesters, these would constitute tyranny if used systematically against innocent people, but the protesters against whom these things were used were far from innocent. Over the past few months, people associated with the Black Lives Matter movement have assaulted police officers and civilians, burned, smashed, and otherwise destroyed property, looted businesses, and vandalized countless statues and monuments. Although there have been a few isolated instances of police using excessive force against innocent people, the vast majority of instances of use of force were in response to acts of aggression by protesters. Defending people and property against violent mobs is not tyranny.
Contrary to what Pearce argues, COVID restrictions are the true tyranny here. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, governments around the country and world have trampled on individual rights on a massive scale. People have been told that they cannot run their businesses, shop at stores, eat in restaurants, attend church, gather in groups, go to parks or beaches, or even leave their homes, sometimes under penalty of fines or prison time. How can anyone argue that this is not tyranny? The fact that these policies have been instituted in response to a health crisis does not make them any less tyrannical. A pandemic does not mean that individual rights no longer exist, nor that it is okay to violate them. If it is tyrannical to force blacks and whites to use separate restaurants, stores, and barber shops as Pearce alleges, how can it not be tyrannical to ban all people from restaurants, stores, and barber shops altogether?
So in conclusion, although instances of racism and police brutality are certainly unjust, they are not systemic, nor do they constitute tyranny. Stay-at-home orders, on the other hand, violate everyone’s fundamental rights to make their own choices and therefore are the true tyranny. In the words of John Wilkes Booth (and also the Virginia state motto), sic semper tyrannis!