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Honor System Assumes Honor

November 28th, 2021 by dk

More Americans have died from COVID-19 this year than last. Despite vaccines, masks, and other available precautions, Americans are dying faster. It’s not just the pandemic. Vigilanteism is rising. Violence is seeping into formerly safe places — jogging through a Georgia neighborhood, cheering the Boston Marathon, voting in Congress, clubbing in Florida, parading in Wisconsin.

Society has been fraying for decades, but it’s no longer at the edges. When grandkids can’t safely watch a holiday parade from the curb, it’s time to recalibrate. Our former president openly embraces authoritarian solutions. Republicans can’t resist it and Democrats can’t stop it.

Strongmen see America’s end as well underway. They were sure a multi-cultural country devoted to open information and fair elections couldn’t last. They’re only amazed that we kept things controlled for as long as we did.

Democracies under threat have never been so high, according to a report by Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). “More countries than ever are suffering from ‘democratic erosion’” and “backsliding.” The report blames populist politics, COVID restrictions, and disinformation campaigns.

We’ve wrestled with gun violence for generations. Drug and alcohol abuse has shortened many lives. We consider addiction an illness, protecting us from having to confront it ourselves. But now it’s not safe at a parade? How do we get the toothpaste back in the tube?

I stopped for gas near Lebanon last week. The convenience store posted signs that masks are required, but every customer except me was ignoring it. Worse, a couple of those customers looked askance at me, like I was a weakling or a traitor for following the rules. They don’t disregard the governor’s order; they disdain it (and her).

I’ve written this before. We can’t expect law to preserve order. We need order first, leaving law to correct disorder. But we can’t have order if we don’t respect and even trust one another. A street curb was a boundary every motorist agreed to. Election results could be disputed, but eventually were considered final. Win or lose, we moved on, together.

Why do governors have the authority to tell convenience store customers to cover their faces? Because we’ve given them that power. They have the consent of the governed. Our system will collapse quickly without it.

Pandemic deaths are higher where masking is ignored and vaccination rates are low. That’s not politics. It’s barely math. It’s more like arithmetic. Add protections or subtract lives.

When the pandemic first started, I assured friends that the vaccine would fix the problem. People might want to argue about masking and school closures, but logic would prevail once the life-or-death decision was theirs to make for themselves and their family. I was wrong. 

And there’s nothing we can do about it. Enforcing mandates more stringently smacks of authoritarianism. Persuading skeptics requires trust and respect that’s fraying around and now through us.

Even vaccine passports won’t work, as they have elsewhere. Forgeries are too easy. Enforcement falls to the lowly paid. We’d rather believe in an honor system, except without the honor.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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