Not many people, likely, remember the name of Richard Reid, or the way he changed a small part of our lives forever. On December 22nd, 2001, Reid, an American national who had, nonetheless, fallen into the fever-swamps of radical Islamism, boarded a plane in Paris, France, bound for Miami, Florida. About halfway through the flight, he lit several matches, and tried to set fire to his right shoe.
The reason, it turned out, was that he had concealed a small bomb in the sole of that shoe. Not a bomb big enough to blow the plane out of the sky, but certainly big enough to blow a hole in the fuselage and cause a critical depressurisation, causing the plane to crash. The quick thinking of two flight attendants stopped him, and all passengers survived. Reid presently resides in solitary confinement in the ADX Florence maximum security prison, having been sentenced to 110 years in prison, with no possibility of parole.
His legacy, though, lives on in the fact that every time you go through airport security, you must take off your shoes, and put them through the scanning machine. One failed bombing, 20 years ago, has resulted in a permanent change to the way airports work.
Many temporary innovations, designed to make our lives more secure and safe, ultimately end up becoming permanent. The income tax, for example, was devised as a temporary measure to help the British Empire defeat Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon has been dead 200 years, but income tax survives.
It might seem absurd, at this remove, to speculate that there is a risk that facemasks might end up being a permanent fixture of our lives, but the evidence is mounting that they will be harder, and harder, to get rid of, as time goes on. And that is not solely a function of Government, but of their inexplicable popularity as part of the Covid culture wars.
Consider, for example, this from President Biden, yesterday, after he had announced that it was no longer mandatory for fully vaccinated Americans to wear facemasks outdoors:
New CDC guidance released today said if you are fully vaccinated, you don’t need to wear a mask outside anymore.
Yet, fully-vaccinated Biden today 👇🏼pic.twitter.com/0vxnXoJomq
— Aaron Ginn (@aginnt) April 27, 2021
He’s wearing one anyway. Why?
Part of it is that facemasks have become yet another stupid culture war touchstone in the US, and, by extension, most of the rest of the world that exists in the US cultural sphere. For example, here is a piece in liberal US publication The Week, in which the author declares that she intends to keep wearing her mask indefinitely:
I first started wearing my mask outdoors as a courtesy, a signal to my neighbors that I cared about their health and was taking precautions to keep them protected. As we begin rolling back pandemic restrictions and resuming “normal life,” I’m not quite ready yet to stop sending that message.
While I believe we don’t “need” to wear masks outside, I’m also sympathetic to the trauma we’ve endured as a nation, a city, and as individuals. It’s hard to flip from the mindset of wear a mask constantly or risk killing your grocery store clerk, to don’t bother wearing a mask outside at all. Particularly when you live in a former COVID-19 hotspot, like I do — where less than a year ago, hundreds of people were dying a day just in the surrounding neighborhood — those habits can be especially hard to let go of. Masks represent a semblance of control and comfort that we’d wrestled back from the disease, a way to navigate public spaces again without the fear of strangers that had tainted every interaction early in the pandemic.
Consider, for a moment, what the author of those words is explicitly saying: Wearing a facemask for her, and millions like her, isn’t really about protecting her from a virus at all. It’s about “sending a signal” to her fellow citizens that she cares, and “regaining control”.
Consider, too, the immense reluctance in political circles to consider relaxing facemask mandates on account of “the variants”, and the general tremulous fear of easing any covid restrictions at all. Even when this country, and others like it, reach a point of near zero cases, there will, as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, be political leaders demanding “caution” from the public.
The easiest way to remind people to be cautious, of course, is to force them to wear masks, because the masks are a visible reminder that things are different now.
It also provides a helpful political dividing line for Ireland’s uniformly progressive cultural and political elite: Facemasks are a sign of intelligence, of complying with “the science”, and generally being a rational person. Not wearing one is a warning sign of “covid denialism”. That is a view embraced not only by the politicians and media, but by a good chunk of the public as well. When you take away facemasks for everybody, the good and the decent people become harder to identify. It is not dissimilar to Moses telling the Jews of Egypt to daub their lintels with sheep’s blood, in that respect.
That is what makes the case against face masking more urgent. It is that for perfectly human reasons – vanity, fear, pride, and ego – there will be great resistance to ever getting rid of them. Laws that are introduced for temporary reasons have an uncomfortable habit of becoming permanent, and it is time to prepare the arguments for when this fight comes, as it soon will.