“But we are at war,” I said. “It seems reasonable to give up some of our privacy during an emergency.”
“We always say that,” Mr. Magundi replied. “We say that, because of the current emergency, we can’t have the privacy or the rights or the freedoms that we ordinarily enjoy. But there is never not a current emergency. There is never an ordinary time, when things are just normal. It doesn’t matter whether it’s terrorists, or drug gangs, or threat of nuclear war, or race riots, or Communist conspiracies, or Hitler and Tojo, or a Great Depression—there is always a current emergency. And so we must make a conscious choice: do our rights and freedoms exist during the current emergency, which is to say while there is still evil in the world, or are they only potentials, which can never be actualized until we all take up residence in the new Jerusalem?
“Much could be said on either side. Tyranny is very good at getting things done, which might make it a good choice for the current emergency. On the other hand, we Americans might want to remember that our own Constitution, whose principles we are so easily tempted to set aside during the current emergency, was formulated specifically to address a current emergency perhaps more pressing than anything we face today: the imminent dissolution of the national government. Perhaps the representatives who put it together, and who added the first ten amendments while the ink was still wet on the original, knew something about current emergencies from experience.”
“I don’t mind telling you, though,” Mrs. Bowman remarked, “sometimes when I see one of those teenagers looking like that, I’m afraid. I move to the other side of the street.”
“The other day,” Mr. Magundi said, “I was looking out my third-floor window when I saw a young man—I might guess fourteen or fifteen years old—walking up the street. He was strolling very slowly, with that rolling gait fashionable among young men of his age, and occasionally twitching his arms in a passable imitation of a dangerous psychopath, which is another very fashionable affectation among young men. He had obviously put a great deal of thought into projecting an appearance of menace, doubtless with a view to his reputation among his peers. Then, as I watched unseen, he looked up and down the street to make sure he was not observed, and stooped to pet a friendly grey cat on the sidewalk.
“I don’t know whether this story has a moral or not: I offer it merely as an anthropological study.”
The entire database for this site disappeared off the face of the ether and had to be reconstructed. The text has been mostly restored, and some of the comments as well. Mr. Magundi is heartily sorry for having lost a few comments, all of which he values.
“I think we’re capable of moral progress,” I said. “After all, we don’t have slavery anymore.”
“We don’t?” Mr. Magundi made a great show of incredulity. “Then what are you doing waiting for a streetcar when it’s twelve degrees out? Go home—make a pot of tea—read a good book. Come back when it’s spring. You’re a free man!”
“If kids aren’t learning, they should go to school more,” said Mr. Bates. “I think they should go to school year-round.”
“I see,” Mr. Magundi replied. “The patient is dying of arsenic poisoning, so you prescribe more arsenic.”
“But Derek is so miserable in school,” said Mrs. Bowman. “I worry about him. He just can’t seem to fit in.”
“And good for him,” said Mr. Magundi. “The child who is miserable in school is laying the foundation for a happy adulthood, but the child who is happy in school will never recover from it.”
“But why do they put him in prison?” asked Brielle, the art student. “He’s, like, the most famous filmmaker they have.”
Mr. Magundi was prepared with an answer, as always. “Fanaticism attacks, with the inevitability of a law of nature, whatever is most splendid in its own culture. The Puritans destroyed English drama because it was the wonder of the world; the Calvinists smashed the treasures of medieval art because they were treasures; the Nazis expelled the artists and scientists who threatened to make Germany really glorious; the Khmer Rouge massacred intellectuals because they were intelligent; the Taliban sent the army to bomb the most famous works of art in Afghanistan because they were famous.
“We usually look at these incidents as collateral damage in the fanatics’ struggle for power, but we are wrong. The whole goal of the fanatic is this kind of destruction. The world is evil, says the fanatic; therefore whatever in the world is outstanding must be outstandingly evil. The Puritans destroyed English drama not in spite of Shakespeare, but because of Shakespeare. The Fascists beat Toscanini because he dared to defy the Duce, but more because he dared to be Toscanini. Wherever fanatics have power, they turn it first against whatever is great and beautiful, because it must be punished for finding greatness and beauty and light outside the dark prison of fanaticism.”