Pumping gas at the Thornton’s station in Villa Park last Saturday morning, I missed the altercation inside the mini-mart as a young man protested having to wear a mask. My companion filled me in when she returned. The women at the counter were having none of his guff. They might have to pay a stiff fine if they served him. He gave in but was still jawing at my friend as he returned to his vehicle. 

I thought about my experience over the years jawing with gun rights advocates, who essentially believe they have God-given rights to do pretty much whatever they feel like when it comes to firearms, including shooting someone when they feel threatened and calling it “self-defense,” like George Zimmerman pulling the trigger on Trayvon Martin.

Anti-mask advocates, meanwhile, many of whom are God-fearing firearms enthusiasts, judging by their gun-toting presence in public protests, have been making a case for their right to inflict harm on others and even themselves in order to protect their God-given freedom, common good be damned. What many have dubbed “toxic individualism.”

My response to this unmasked man would be the same response I give the perpetually petulant gun rights advocates when they venture into “sacred and inviolable rights” territory: With rights come responsibilities, the motto of Gun Responsibility Advocates, the group I co-founded with nine other Oak Park and River Forest residents seven years ago. 

Gun advocates hate being told they need to accept the responsibilities that go with their rights. They have an answer for every argument except that one. 

None of us get to enjoy inalienable rights unless and until we accept the inalienable responsibilities that accompany those rights. No responsibility, no rights.

What responsibilities must gun advocates accept … and support … and promote? Common-sense gun regulation to keep firearms out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them. Help us pass common-sense, common-good legislation and we’ll recognize your rights. That’s fair.

Gun advocates at least have the excuse of the Second Amendment to misinterpret and hide behind. Mask scofflaws have no case at all. Their resistance pales next to public health concerns during a dangerous pandemic — when responsibility gets priority, overruling poorly conceived “rights” that the majority of Americans do not even recognize. When the common good butts up against toxic individualism, the common good must prevail.

Because rights are inseparable from responsibility. 

The right to protest comes with a responsibility to refrain from violence and looting.

Police officers’ authority comes with a responsibility to be transparent and accountable to the public they serve. 

Election to office comes with an oath to uphold the Constitution and a commitment to serve, not rule. 

Political power, granted by the consent of the governed, comes with the obligation not to abuse and misuse that power.

Americans cherish their rights. But not enough accept the responsibilities that accompany them. Accepting those responsibilities is at the heart of governing ourselves, politically and personally. Without that, there is no democracy, only toxic libertarianism. Or anarchy.

Rights minus responsibilities cause great harm because unfettered freedom isn’t freedom at all, merely license.

We can’t withhold civil liberties from some (people of color) while claiming unrestricted freedom for others (the white elite). America is the land of opportunity, but not the opportunity to be socially irresponsible. 

Truth always involves more than “me.” Rights begin where you and me intersect, leading to “we.”

Those who don’t trust government are part of the problem, rarely part of the solution. Too many Americans these days do not consent to be governed. They make lousy citizens. They don’t vote at all or they vote for people who can’t run a respectable election that isn’t rigged in favor of the guy who claims it’s rigged against him. Our current problem.

But our most immediate problem is Americans who won’t put on a mask to help get this pandemic under control.

There’s an old saying that Americans are better at dealing with the wolf at the door than the termites in the basement. That used to be true. Now it seems we’re no good at either. 

Because, you know, it might restrict our freedom. 

Join the discussion on social media!

7 replies on “America unmasked”