OKEECHOBEE — Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it,” and in the last few weeks, we are witnessing this. Of the many atrocities brought about by the Nazi Party in Germany, one of the most surprising was the indoctrination of perfectly normal, ordinary men, women and children. These ordinary people were convinced through propaganda that they should turn on their friends, neighbors and even families, in the belief they were performing their moral duty. Even knowing the consequences to those they reported, thousands of German citizens still reported their own parents, friends and neighbors to the police.
According to History.com, in the United States in 1918, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which was intended to protect the involvement of the U.S. in World War I. This act, along with the Espionage Act, passed in 1917, made it illegal for anyone to interfere with the war effort in any way. Harsh penalties were imposed on anyone found guilty of making statements contrary to the war effort, disparaging the U.S. government, flag, military or Constitution or encouraging anyone else to do so. Just criticizing the government could lead to an arrest. Citizens were encouraged to report suspicious behavior to authorities, and many did, despite the consequences to those they reported.
During the late ’40s and early ’50s, the United States experienced the Red Scare, and the American people were convinced there were Communists lurking everywhere. Federal employees and those associated with the film industry were investigated. Again, citizens were asked to report any subversive behavior by friends, family or neighbors, and many complied.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. Department of War began to suspect Japanese Americans might plot against the U.S. They wanted to round up the Japanese Americans and move them to internment camps. This was opposed by the Justice Department, but Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy said if it came down to a choice between civil liberties and national security, he considered the Constitution “just a scrap of paper.” Once again, Americans were encouraged to turn in their neighbors, for the good of the country.
In April 2020, Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio urged the citizens of New York to report people and places who were not social distancing. “When you see a crowd, when you see a line, when you see a supermarket that’s too crowded, anything that’s not social distancing, you can report it right away so we can get help there to fix the problem. It’s simple,” he said. “Just snap a photo, put the location with it and bang! Send the photo like this, and we will make sure enforcement comes right away.”
There are many books and movies with this as the plot: Farenheit 451, 1984, Equals, Hunger Games, Equilibrium, V for Vendetta, Brazil, Metropolis, The Lobster and THX 1138 are some examples. In none of these books or movies does it end well for those who turn on their family and friends.
In Okeechobee, no one is expressly asking citizens to report their neighbors for breaking rules about social distancing, but it is happening all the same. According to Okeechobee County Sheriff Noel Stephen and Police Chief Bob Peterson, they have received multiple calls complaining about businesses being open when they shouldn’t be, and each time they receive these calls, they are obligated to investigate. Last week, they received at least four calls complaining about barbershops or beauty parlors opening despite the governor’s orders to remain closed. Law enforcement has been called several times about Back to Butch’s Bar, and according to Jeffrey Kennedy, each time they were found to be in full compliance with the laws of the State of Florida. He feels the callers are wasting valuable resources with fictitious calls to the sheriff’s office.
“I will continue to operate my business within the scope of the law during these difficult times. I ask for your continued support as we go forward getting used to the new norm that has been thrust upon us,” he said.
On Facebook, the reaction to these calls and complaints is overwhelming negative, with many wondering why people can’t just mind their own business. “If you want to stay home for another month or two, do it, but let the rest of us do what we need to do to survive,” said one man.
At the most recent meeting of the Okeechobee County commissioners, salon owner Angie Griffin said “We have a really good reopening plan. I can guarantee you my reopening plan is better than the checkout plan they have at Walmart.”
Amanda Carver said she is more concerned with the people making the complaints than she is about businesses opening too soon. “Seriously? Mind ya business and let people make a living,” she said.
Many believe enforcing the governor’s order is unconstitutional. Arthur Meyer asked the sheriff and police chief if they took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and if they believed that oath superseded unconstitutional mandates regardless of where they come from.
Ashley Varnadore reminded everyone that if they would mind their own business, the deputies would not have to go out and enforce the order. “It’s very simple. If you’re fearful, keep self-isolating. If your family member has been gallivanting around town, tell them you’re not comfortable with them coming over. If you’ve been sick, stay away from people. If you think you’ve been compromised, stay away from people. It’s honestly common sense, that really isn’t all that common anymore!” she said.
Each of us has a decision to make when we see something questionable happen. It’s been that way all our lives. As children, we had to be taught which things we should go tell mom and dad about, such as little sister wandering off down the road; which things we should deal with ourselves, such as little sister taking our toys; and which things we should let go, such as little sister reading under the covers at bedtime. At the end of the day, only you can decide what the right thing to do is. Is seeing 11 people sitting together at a restaurant something you should call and report? What do you think?