For a people supposedly united by their great and abiding love of freedom, the pandemic year has been an interesting test of Americans’ commitment to their country’s founding principles. Sure, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are great — but have you tried surveilling, spying and snitching on your neighbors amid an endless state of emergency?
Turns out, many folks in the US are quite willing to sacrifice various freedoms if it means they get to scold and punish others, particularly their ideological opponents, for breaking the rules. The past two years have seen many Americans embrace their inner authoritarians, treating shamings like a spectator sport and excoriating the noncompliant with evangelical zeal. But new anti-abortion legislation out of Texas has taken this trend a step further: the country’s vigilante hall monitors have been given a figurative badge, gun and blessing of the state to do their very worst.
Much has been written about the cruelty and invasiveness of the new law, which effectively bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, and which the Supreme Court chose by the narrowest possible margin not to block. But these are familiar arguments; what’s unprecedented, and dangerous, is how the Texas law exploits our constitutional provisions against state abuses of power by instead giving private citizens the license to trample each other’s rights.
The law won’t be enforced by police officers or district attorneys; instead, it empowers the people to play cop. No, you still can’t sue an individual woman for getting an abortion — but if you live in Texas, you can now bring suit against abortion providers who violate the law, as well as against anyone who ‘aids or abets’ a woman getting the procedure (like, say, the Uber driver who brought her to the clinic). There are no exceptions for rape or incest, and the bar for reporting suspected violations is incredibly low. Anti-abortion activists wasted no time setting up a pipeline from private citizenry to civil court. Texas Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group, immediately assembled a group of attorneys to bring lawsuits and created a website where people could report suspected violations.
In short, if they’ve got the time and inclination, individual Texans are now legally entitled to viciously interfere with another person’s life. The law’s assault on civil liberties is both profound and insidious, turning ordinary people into meddling little agents of the state, doing the dirty work of informing on their neighbors while the government makes a show of keeping its hands clean. It’s also clearly ripe for abuse: the same low bar for reporting that makes it easy to inundate the system with fake tips (as some pro-choice advocates have already begun trying to do) also makes it prone to malicious false reporting. It’s not hard to imagine how it might be exploited by, say, a jealous ex-husband or domestic abuser — or, for that matter, by the type of internet trolls who use tactics like swatting to create chaos in the lives of their targets.
But even apart from these horrifying worst-case scenarios, the Texas law is also a model for all but destroying the basic social contracts that allow a free society to function. A country as huge and diverse as the US requires a live-and-let-live attitude toward other people’s affairs, with only the slimmest of carveouts for preventing harm; legislation like this would transform us into a nation of suspicious narcs, peering into each other’s lives in search of ammo for our own private oppo files. Encouraging such interference in the lives of our neighbors opens all kinds of dangerous doors.
It’s also a remarkable sort of own goal for conservatives, who’ve been avid recent adopters of ‘my body, my choice’ rhetoric by way of justifying the decision not to get the COVID vaccine, and who seem not to recognize the unintended consequences waiting in the wings. The Texas law suggests that average citizens may intrude upon and disrupt each other’s medical choices for the sake of the public good — at a moment in which public health has never been more politicized. How long until some enterprising Democrats bring similar legislation that allows people to report on the movements and activities of the unvaccinated?
This is not happening in a vacuum. For the past decade, American politics have been increasingly characterized by schadenfreude, intolerance and a marked lack of interest in leaving each other alone, let alone cooperating despite our disagreements. We are less comfortable with living and letting live, and more delighted in the suffering of those who annoy us. Our faith in institutions, from government to media to the criminal justice system, has suffered a catastrophic collapse. And for the past 18 months, we have been frightened, restless, and at the perpetual mercy of authorities whose competence and trustworthiness seems questionable at best even as they continue to exert tremendous power over our lives.
A population under this kind of stress will do just about anything to regain some sense of control. But there’s a particular danger, as the Texas law demonstrates, in empowering them to do it to someone else.
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