Favorite movies might be likened to old friends – they are familiar, they don’t disappoint, and you often find something new.
The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring trilogy, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, was released in December, 2001 – when the blows of September 11 of that year were still raw in our collective heart and soul. The movie’s release felt providential with its story of resilient good against seemingly overwhelming evil.
The memory of two scenes recently drew me back to the film. The first occurs early on when Frodo, the Ring bearer, is at the Prancing Pony Inn where he has fled from the pursuit of the nine “Nazgul” horsemen, the ancient kings “neither alive nor dead.” Aragorn, at this point in the story known only as Strider the Ranger, forcibly takes Frodo into protection and asks him, “Are you frightened?”
“Yes,” Frodo replies.
“Not nearly frightened enough.” says the Ranger.
The second scene is when the nine members who comprise the Fellowship of the Ring are hunted by an army of misshapen elves, “orcs,” deep in the Mines of Moria. Frodo says to Gandalf, the wizard: “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
Gandalf answers: “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides that of evil.”
The SARS-CoV-2 virus may or may not bring biological rack and ruin to our individual bodies, but for those of us of responsible age (hobbits or not) and however much disease and death the virus leaves in its wake, our un-biological souls (if you believe in such things) are being ever marked by our individual responses to its presence among us.
Some spurn “the fellowship of the mask” as an infringement of civil liberty. I suppose it is. I still find traffic lights more annoying. Some revile Governor Wolf for what they regard as his deliberate effort to deprive them of rights guaranteed by the federal constitution. Look at this serious accusation a little further.
As long ago as 1824, and ever since, the federal Supreme Court, the final authority of what the federal constitution does and does not mean, has held that the individual states (and not the federal government) have sovereign authority to enact quarantine laws and health laws of every description.
Constitutional lawyer David French has explained: “Even laws that directly curtail First Amendment freedoms will be upheld if they can pass a legal test called ‘strict scrutiny,’ which requires the government to demonstrate that its actions advance a compelling governmental interest and are enacted through the least restrictive legal means.”
The argument is that the broad bans imposed in March on public gatherings would pass “strict scrutiny” -- even among federal judges appointed by President Trump. However, as French also notes, “bans that were lawful when implemented may become unlawful when they linger too long.”
Governor Wolf, as I write this, has already moved 37 counties into the interim reopening “yellow” phase.” In doing so, he is acting counter to the advice of an almost uniform chorus of public health leaders who warn of dire health projections if the economy is opened too soon. On May 22 another 12 counties will enter the yellow phase from “red” – leaving 18 counties still in “lockdown.”
However, while the governor may be “in charge,” the virus remains “in control.” The constitutional dilemma is that the longer the governor keeps restrictions on the economy, the harder it is for his administration satisfactorily to maintain a constitutional concern called the “neutral law of general application.”
We’ve all seen it. Large “box stores” prosper while many small businesses have been forced to close. Why should Wal-Mart sell clothes when clothing stores cannot?
Even among small businesses there is unsatisfactory neutrality. For example, I regard both books and beer as essential. If I was governor, and for some reason I had to choose, I would pick books over beer. So why, I ask, are beer distributorships open while book stores closed? I feel certain book-store owners would maintain social distancing as well as beer distributorships.
I don’t regard what is going on in Pennsylvania as a variation of Rahm Emanuel’s “never let a good crisis go to waste” and a preliminary effort by the Wolf administration to impart an apocalyptic mark of the beast upon us. I do regard what is going on in Pennsylvania, in and outside of its government, as troubling in what is turning out to be a long. difficult, and apparently divisive, struggle.
The governor is trying to keep a lid on a cauldron beneath a raging fire he has to depend on others not to stoke. He can do better. So can we.
Tom Wolf is not the Dark Lord Sauron. The virus is the unblinking eye peering everywhere. Tom Wolf may be an unlikely Gandalf the Grey. But he is not an enemy to either our federal or state constitution.
If you think he is, and you engage in rebellion to his authority, and if it turns out you are mistaken in a way that is unmistakably mistaken, to whom will you turn then and how will you have served what are still hopefully the not mutually exclusive causes of life and liberty?
Inevitably, it seems, the virus is forcing each one of us to apply an exacting moral calculus to what used to be simple daily decisions.