Just When We Thought It Was Safe to Go Back in the Water

Bret Stephens: Gail, I hope you had a beautiful Thanksgiving. We made two big discoveries on Thursday. The first was creamed dried sweet corn. The second was the Omicron variant of Covid, which was first identified by scientists in South Africa. I guess you could say the corn went down better than the cron.

If we end up having another big surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, should we go back to lockdowns? Or do things differently?

Gail Collins: We had a great time, Bret. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. We had the same old gang that comes every year. Well, every nonpandemic year. One of them wrote to me the next morning saying how nice it was that life felt “back to normal.”

That was exactly the way I felt, but you’re right — all of a sudden we’re hit with a new virus variant. My immediate plan is to follow all safety protocols but otherwise pretend it isn’t happening.

I’ve got all my shots, wear masks whenever I go shopping or travel. But I’m not staying home. Still going to restaurants, plays, concerts and planning holiday trips. Think that’s irresponsible?

Bret: I think it’s sane, necessary and courageous.

Gail: Well, not expecting a badge for going to a jazz club, but thanks. Go on.

Bret: We’re going to create the Order of the Birdland, just for you, Gail.

Back to Covid: I think we should stop assuming we can make it go away, whether by locking down communities and shutting down borders or by rolling out new medicines. We can’t eliminate risk but we can mitigate it, especially by creating various kinds of accommodations for people with higher risk factors. Let’s hope vaccines and therapeutics will keep catching up with the new variants as they emerge and evolve. But the bottom line is that we still have to go on living as close to normal as possible: sending kids to school, letting them see friends, going to our jobs, socializing, eating at our favorite restaurants, consuming culture and all the rest.

All of which is to say that it was a mistake for the Biden administration to shut down travel from some countries in Africa. We should be shutting down the shutdowns, period.

Gail: Hmm. Don’t know if I’m sure we shouldn’t take a little break on travel from Africa until scientists get more information on the newest variant.

Bret: My guess is that it’s probably already here, sorry to say. In better news, Gail, there were the guilty verdicts in Georgia for the heinous murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Your thoughts …

Gail: It was a relief to see a case where a nearly all-white jury came down so quickly on a horrible racist murder. The evidence was so clear, it’d be hard to imagine a different outcome. But as you may have noticed, we live in troubled times.

Bret: A good reminder that, for all of our problems, there really has been meaningful racial progress in this country. I doubt you would have had the same verdict 50 years ago, and not just because one of the killers was dumb enough to film them committing the crime.

Gail: Speaking of terrible crimes, how about that parade tragedy in Wisconsin, where, according to prosecutors, a driver named Darrell Brooks ran into the marchers and killed six people?

Bret: Heartbreaking. And outrageous. Brooks had a rap sheet as long as an elephant’s trunk, and, reportedly, he had recently tried to run a woman over with the same Ford Escape he used in his rampage. Yet he was out on $1,000 bail. This seems crazy to me, not to mention politically suicidal for Democrats who keep pushing for bail reform.

Gail: I’m not a fan of bail, period. Even when it comes to violent charges, the judge should just figure out whether the accused has a history that suggests he might strike again if he’s freed.

If there’s a bad record, prisoner stays in jail and prosecution is obligated to move toward a quick trial. A guy like Brooks isn’t going to restrain himself because he’s out on $1,000 bail or $50,000 bail. If there’s no prior history of violence or serious threat of flight, the accused should be let go until he’s tried.

But the problem is that reforming the system would be expensive.

So, ahem, more government spending …

Bret: OK, I’m intrigued. Please say a little more about where the money would have to be spent to make your idea work.

Gail: Well, a lot more judges, court officers, public defenders and backup personnel to move the system along much faster. Not to mention the prison facilities we’d need to keep a whole lot more people confined until their trials.

Bret: Maybe someone put ayahuasca in my coffee. I’m agreeing with you, Gail.

Proponents of bail reform have one thing right in that it is outrageous to keep people who are owed a presumption of innocence locked up for months or years because they can’t afford bail. As you suggest, the answer is to give them their Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial, which should take weeks or months, not years. If that requires billions in more spending, I’d support it.

Gail: Happy holidays!

Bret: There’s a bipartisan path to a better criminal-justice system that everyone from Donald Trump to Nancy Pelosi could get behind, including better prison conditions, which have become a disgrace in places like Rikers Island, and greater rehabilitative efforts within prison walls, including in-jail drug rehab. Where I think proponents of reform lose the plot is by arguing that people with demonstrated propensities to violence go free. All that would do is lead to outrages like the one in Waukesha while guaranteeing a public backlash against any form of reform at all.

Another crime-related question for you, Gail: How do you feel about vigorously policing and prosecuting quality-of-life offenses, like public drug use or shoplifting?

Gail: If the law — and the system upholding it — imposes the same penalty on people regardless of class, race or income, I’m probably good with it. If the punishment given to a homeless woman caught shoplifting is the same as the punishment given to a suburban teenager caught shoplifting, it isn’t going to be extreme.

Bret: Fair point. But I’d still like to live in cities where people don’t feel free to smoke meth pipes next to Macy’s in broad daylight, homeless encampments don’t spring up beneath highway overpasses and drugstores don’t have to put toothpaste and other commonplace items behind locked cabinets to keep people from stealing them. In other words, not San Francisco. Liberals in particular should be for making cities livable, especially for their middle-class residents.

Gail: Speaking of quality of life, our colleagues put together a very interesting quiz you can take to determine where you’re best suited to live. Mine came out with New York City at the top, and I’m very very happy to already be in my target town. Almost anybody who loves diversity, live music, restaurants and a car-free culture would be happy here. Presuming they happened to already have a comfortable and affordable living space. Just that one detail …

Anyhow, wondering if you took the test and where you came out.

Bret: The quiz didn’t seem to give me an option to leave the country, which is what our family did when we moved to Hamburg after Trump was elected in 2016, and what we will do again if he’s returned to office in three years. Thinking of either Taormina or Tel Aviv next time.

Gail: Good advance planning, but I’m going for positivity.

Bret: Anyway, according to the algorithm, San Diego is the perfect American city for me. Nice weather; lots of families; tilts conservative. But I’m not looking to move from my old farmhouse anytime soon, and barring another Trumpocalypse I would have a hard time living anywhere that’s more than 60 miles from Times Square.

Gail: If “farmhouse just outside of New York” was an option, pretty sure you could have gotten a majority of the quiz-takers.

Bret: Unfortunately it comes with old farmhouse problems. We have a poltergeist in the attic and a basement worthy of a “Silence of the Lambs” sequel.

Speaking of Times Square, that was sad news about Stephen Sondheim passing away last week. Talk about genius! A friend of mine with an ear for melody and a gift for language sent me a song from “Merrily We Roll Along” that she thought was apropos of our weekly chats:

Gail: Love the way you think. Sing. Or actually, both. This can be our Sondheim season.

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