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We can’t allow fear to go viral and erode our civil liberties

An ill advised, and now rescinded, policing tactic on the West Side illustrates the kind of threat to our civil liberties that crops up in a crisis. We saw it after 9-11, and now again.

A Chicago police SUV sits at the entrance of the 3900 block of West Van Buren Street on Tuesday afternoon.
A Chicago police SUV sits at the entrance of the 3900 block of West Van Buren Street on Tuesday afternoon.
Sam Charles/Sun-Times

Which comes first during a pandemic: personal liberty or public health?

As Sam Charles and Frank Main reported in Wednesday’s Chicago Sun-Times, a debate over that very question played out this week on the West Side, where police officers on Tuesday were assigned to check the IDs of everyone, including local residents, who entered blocks known for gang gatherings.

Exactly why did the cops do this?

Because the city feared that the open-air drug markets run by gangs — those selling heroin, cocaine and the like on street corners — could become even stronger magnets for gun violence amid Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order — while simultaneously becoming hot spots for the spread of COVID-19.

As a result of the Sun-Times story, the Chicago Police Department ended this practice on Wednesday. If you’re a law-abiding person who lives on, say, the 3900 block of West Van Buren Street, you’re free once again to run out to the grocery store without having to show your ID to a cop, as if you lived in a totalitarian state.

Glad to see the Sun-Times could be of service.

Civil liberties targeted

This ill-advised policing tactic nonetheless perfectly illustrates the kind of threats to our civil liberties that crop up whenever our nation is struggling with a crisis. We saw it after the 9-11 attacks. We’re seeing it now during the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr wants to lock up people indefinitely, without granting them a hearing before a judge, until the pandemic blows over. Bad idea.

Governors in Texas and Ohio have banned almost all abortions, citing coronavirus concerns that health experts say are far fetched. Bad idea. Governors in two other states, California and Pennsylvania, tried — without success — to use the pandemic as an argument for closing gun shops. Bad idea.

We favor stricter laws on gun sales, too, but let’s keep the debate honest.

The line can be tough to draw. We know that. Exactly when is a restriction on our usual liberties justified or over the top?

Some restrictions necessary

Here in Chicago, for example, we think it’s an easy call that Harrison District Cmdr. Darrell Spencer should not have issued an order that only people who live on certain blocks should be allowed to enter them — hence all that checking of identification.

Several police officers interviewed by the Sun-Times were of the same skeptical view, confiding that they were hesitant to follow orders because they feared the directive might not be constitutional.

But what are we to make of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s order that people not congregate in large groups during the pandemic? So far as we know, nobody’s been incarcerated for violating that prohibition, though the mayor has not ruled anything out.

To our mind, the mayor’s order is appropriate, even necessary. Her order applies to one and all, not to just some Chicagoans in some parts of town. And every public health expert agrees that physical distancing is essential to beating the virus.

By the same token, Pritzker had no responsible choice but to close “nonessential” businesses and schools.

We either beat the virus or the virus beats us.

The rule of thumb should be to infringe on traditional liberties as minimally as possible — only as a last resort, only in a way that does not irrationally target a subgroup of Americans, and only for as briefly as necessary.

It’s hard to argue, that is to say, against Pritzker’s revising of the state’s Open Meetings Act to allow local government officials to hold meetings online instead of in person. Better an online meeting than no meeting. But once the pandemic is no more, every public meeting had better return to form immediately — in-person and open to one and all.

Don’t let history repeat itself

History says it does not always work that way. Liberties infringed upon are not always reinstated.

After the attacks of 9/11, in a feverish 45-day rush, Congress in 2001 enacted the Patriot Act in the name of national security. A massive overreaction fueled by fear, the Act rewrote surveillance laws to make it easier for the government to spy on ordinary Americans. The government could monitor our phone calls and emails, collect our bank records and even see what books we checked out of the library.

A number of provisions of the Patriot Act have since been renewed several times.

Civil liberties are always in jeopardy in times of national crisis. The trick is not allow our fears to run wild like a deadly virus.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.