America is a land of rights and freedoms. In centuries past, even in decades past, we understood that rights were welded to responsibilities; inseparable from one another. These days there is an increasing divide, as liberals and conservatives alike preach rights from the rooftops even as they suppress responsibilities at every turn.
Not long ago I cared for a man with diabetes. He came to the ER because he had no insurance and no money. It is, of course, a federal law that he has the right to do so without being asked for payment before being seen. I wanted to help him. To find a way for him to receive what he needed. He told me that he couldn’t get any diabetic supplies: no insulin, no glucometer, no test strips.
When I asked him about the cigarettes in his pocket he became very defensive and angry, because I suggested that many of his supplies could be easily purchased for the price of one pack per day, spread over a month. He left angry after making some unkind comments about my sex life. (Which were completely unfounded and untrue, might I add!)
He understood rights. But he refused to have any part of responsibility. I see it over and over as men and women cry for more and more, but are less and less willing to contribute to the system that gives those things away with tax dollars.
A rapidly collapsing Social Security Disability system is evidence. In decades past, people worked hard, put money into the system and were frequently too proud to apply for disability even when they deserved it. I knew an x-ray tech with hands deformed from arthritis who simply refused to apply, even though many physicians encouraged it.
Fast forward to today: to some young people, it’s a career choice. A high school student told a teacher friend of mine, ‘after school I guess I’ll get disability for my nerves, like my folks.’ Having put nothing in, he was perfectly happy to take plenty out.
Criminals ever cry about their Miranda rights, their right to a lawyer, a fair trial, a nice cell, a job, a vote. But they are far too seldom told: ‘you weren’t responsible with your freedoms. You abandoned your responsibilities!’ No, because it might make them feel badly. It might affect their right to self-esteem, their right to pleasant emotions. Their right to do anything other than act responsibly towards their nation.
In fact, the entire medicalization of behavior is evidence of the rights vs. responsibilities debate. Please don’t misunderstand me. Mental illness is real and terrible. But for some, it’s a convenient hiding place. A person isn’t just a jerk, isn’t just difficult or criminal. They have to have ‘explosive disorder’ or ‘anger management issues.’ They can’t just be defiant, they have to be bipolar. They can’t simply be evil criminals, they have to be misunderstood and marginalized ‘by society.’
It’s a subtle but vicious thrust at the heart of our free nation, to take even the worst behavior and make it a condition, thereby robbing the person with the condition of any responsibility, since ‘they just can’t help it.’
But the issue of rights and responsibilities extends all the way to the tragedy of the Boston Marathon. Two young men, the Tsarnov brothers, availed themselves of American life in relationships, in education, in work. In free speech and free belief! But they missed the responsibility, the duty, to be good members of the community, to help not harm, to contribute not detract. Their code of ethics was all rights, and duty only to their own destructive ideology.
As the trial of the Marathon Bomber moves forward, expect more about rights from those all too willing to excuse even the worst behavior as the fault of someone else. We will hear, ad nauseum, about the bomber’s right to fair treatment in the media, his right to the best attorney, his right to be treated not as a combatant, but as a poor, disaffected minority; a kind, pot-smoking college kid, stuck in a land that hated him and left him confused. His right to a psychiatric assessment will doubtless emerge if his attorneys are as clever as I suspect they will be.
Pity he never fused responsibility to his rights. Responsibility for the lives of the other citizens of his city, his community, his adopted country. But then, why would he? It won’t be long until we can replace ‘E Pluribus Unum’ with ‘Rights without responsibility.’ It might sound better in Latin, but even our Latin-speaking Roman ancestors would have been shocked at the implication.
(And even they would have understood that if a citizen or visitor exercised some oddly concocted right to sociopathic behavior, that the government had a responsibility to ensure their swift, and violent, end.)
This is a land of incredible freedom. But we stand on a precipice, beyond which freedom will be lost and only the tyranny of rights, purchased with oppression and force, will remain. If we hope for our children to continue their lives as free men and women, we must teach the rising generations that without responsibilities, there can be no rights, no safety and no prosperity.
A terrifying vision indeed.