Ruth Bass: A remarkable link: Barr pairs slavery with virus restrictions

During remarks last week, Attorney General William Barr suggested public health directives designed to fight the spread of the coronavirus are an affront to civil liberties on par with slavery.

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RICHMOND — Sometimes you wake up thinking you're in the middle of the theater of the absurd, that too many people are doing things that destroy hope and feed pessimism.

It is if the Earth suddenly proved to be flat after all, and dozens of things tipped over the edge. The optimist dismisses this idea, which dissipates after hot coffee and an egg.

But absurdity is out there. How better to classify the statement of U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, who last week said, "Putting a national lockdown, stay at home orders, is like house arrest. Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history."


Slavery: In 1850, three million slaves worked up to 20 hours a day on farms and plantations in this country. Another 400,000 worked in urban areas.

They were not paid a dime, they could be sold at any time as if they were heifers or chickens, they lived in poorly built cabins, they were branded, whipped, mutilated and killed if their rich owner saw fit. Yep, they certainly were under a "different kind of restraint."

Stay-at-home orders: In 2020, thousands of Americans have spent weeks mostly at home and have worn masks on the street, in the workplace, even at home if they share a house with elderly grandparents.

Admittedly, masks aren't fun, but they help protect the wearer and people they meet from a deadly virus. So we do it, or lots of us do it.

It's a safe bet that most slaves, shoulder to shoulder, contributing their bodies and health to tobacco and cotton harvests, would happily abandon that fate and, instead, practice social distancing and put on a mask. Was the attorney general so anxious to get applause from his ultra-conservative college audience that he went off the deep end?

We have a bundle of ways in which our civil liberties have been stomped on in the several centuries since the first African-Americans arrived in Virginia. Americans have been deprived of their right to vote, women fight for equal pay, court systems do not treat everyone equally. African-Americans were once refused seats at lunch counters and water fountains, made to sit in the back of the bus.

Japanese Americans were locked up during World War II. Gays have been deprived of a grocery list of rights, including visiting a partner in intensive care if they weren't married. The list goes on — add your own favorites.

So what about this great threat to American freedom and civil rights from the nation's leading law enforcement guy? Former Vice President Joe Biden honed in on the issue at his town hall last Thursday, as he faced a scene not unlike a drive-in movie of the 1950s, with the audience arriving in cars and lining up at safe distances from each other.

What takes away your freedom, he said, is "not being able to see your kid, not being able to go the football game or baseball game, not seeing your mom or dad sick in the hospital, not being able to do things — that's what is costing us our freedom."

It's public health, not civil rights. It's whether you are or are not your brother's or sister's keeper. It's about whether you want to be directly responsible for someone's death.

It's what we have done and are doing despite the lack of leadership from the White House or the Department of Justice. It is not slavery.

Ruth Bass is a former Sunday editor of The Eagle. Her website is The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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