Personal responsibility.

Those keywords were the concise sound-bite repeated several times by Governor Kay Ivey during her press conference Thursday as she announced she would, as of yesterday, lift more of the restrictions from her previous public health order.

As a student of political rhetoric, those two words carry with them the unspoken subtext that we can’t count on government to save us from a suffocating death if we’re going to pretend that the pandemic just magically went away.

In other words, what good is shutting everything down if it just harms the economy without effectively containing the community spread of COVID-19?

Since this nightmare first started in mid-May, I’ve seen far too many people for comfort simply ignoring the risks. They’re not “bought in” and have resisted doing what must be done.

My thinking at the time was, “Cmon guys. Let’s not drag this out one second longer than necessary.”

Just think, we could have starved the coronavirus of the chance to spread if only everyone had stayed home for two weeks because it runs its course in about 14 days, after which you’re either dead, recover or don’t even realize you were infected.

But no, because of all the stubborn people who just had to go out in public, giving the virus new hosts to spread the contagion among, we are three months in with a year or more of this left to endure.

Wouldn’t it have been great if this misery could have ended in early April? Or if it could have remained some obscure thing in the news out of China and Europe?

But no, some leaders chose to ignore early warnings and rejected the advice of experts until they could no longer rule by cruise control.

Citizens just had to irresponsibly assemble on the steps of a statehouse carrying assault rifles and demanding they be allowed to catch the coronavirus and spread it to their families. And, as expected, that happened.

The abandonment of responsibility continues as ignorance masquerades as facts and spreads faster than the disease itself.

The loosening of restrictions comes even as Alabama is being cited as a national “hot spot” for an outbreak.Montgomery hospitals have run out of beds for coronavirus patients who need intensive care.

Gov. Ivey said she reserves the right to broaden her public health order if things take a turn for the worse, but I don’t see that happening, not in this political climate, not without a mass casualty event.

No, buckle up. We are in it for the long haul now. And that was kind of the point the governor was making.

There is no freedom without responsibility. Freedom and common sense have to co-exist.

A child is not given the freedom to run around with a box of matches without first demonstrating enough responsibility to avoid setting the house on fire, right?

If every Alabamian chooses to “run hog wild” this weekend, making up for lost time, it will come back to bite us in the rear end.

The social contract within a democracy depends upon those represented and the people they select to represent them having a responsibility to each other.

Our responsibility as citizens is to be reasonably informed so we understand what is in the interest of the majority of people.

Even those who don’t bother to vote are tasked with showing proper respect for the decisions of those we choose to occupy positions of authority and who carry out things that need to happen at the city, county, state and federal level. We need to support them when they make tough calls, forced to choose between rocks and hard places.

We have a responsibility to tolerate them and the laws they pass, even if we personally despise them and can’t wait to send them to the unemployment line. The alternative to free and fair elections is anarchy and actual erosion of our beloved freedoms.

To serve one’s community is honorable. We owe them our gratitude and patience.

Our elected representatives have a sworn duty to protect us from harm, whether it is a deadly virus, an economy in deep trouble or both at the same time. Our leaders have an obligation to serve the public and keep us informed with hard facts – not mislead or deceive us to make themselves look better when election time rolls around.

Be careful. Those with a vested interest in making this pandemic seem like it has magically gone away appear to be manipulating how information is presented to the public so we all assume that they are on top of it and deserve two or four more years.

Give it to us straight!

The people we elect also have a solemn duty to protect the integrity of our voting systems and the independence of the judiciary. Once trust is lost, it’s impossible for constituents to buy in and participate.

The balance between leaders and those being led falls upon the justice system, remaining impartial and punishing those who break laws and those who personally cash in on any laws they create. Democracy faces an existential crisis if the courts and prosecutors become shamelessly corrupt and weaponized to the whims of dictator-wannabes.

Our leaders have a responsibility to actually lead -- not simply hand off the difficult decisions to those beneath them while swooping in at the last minute to claim credit for the hard work and wise decision-making of others that led to positive outcomes.

Those in charge are expected to be role models and lead by example – not by the philosophy of “do as I say, not as I do.”

When citizens pick and choose which laws to follow and which to break, what good is the law anymore?

Governors and presidents can pass all of the orders they want, but if trust is eroded, who will respect their authority? They have a duty to pass laws that are just and make sense, but there is a process for changing laws and shaping public opinion. Persuasion isn’t supposed to happen by intimidation tactics.

I am tired of seeing people be so rude and lacking compassion for one another. I am concerned for the future, even after the coronavirus is made manageable.

How did it get this way?

Simply ignoring or abandoning some of the rules invites chaos and confusion. When those convicted of corruption and fraud are released from accountability, it sends a signal to the population that we’ve abandoned the rule of law for the principle of might makes right.

— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: steven.stiefel@times-journal.com.

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