TRAFFORD, Pennsylvania — For the first couple of weeks in December, a tiny, bare tulip tree, common in Appalachia, grows on the trail that hugs Turtle Creek and the eye of passersby. Decorated with cheerful homemade Christmas ornaments, it brought smiles to the faces of cyclists, runners and walkers who saw it every day.
Some days, people would pull an ornament from their jacket pocket and add it while on their daily stride. On other days, one might see a parent pushing a stroller or with a child on their bicycle stop and look at the delightful little ornaments.
Without fail, each child would look at it with the same awe you might see from a child who lives in New York City and visits Rockefeller Center to take in that giant spectacle of a tree.
It was a sad little tree, but it had a lot of love and community around it. And that made it special because the community created it and cared for it.
Then one day, shortly before Christmas, the tree was stripped bare, the joy it gave gone. Within days, a sign went up that read, “Whoever took our Christmas tree ornaments ... put them back.”
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Weeks later, the sign is still stubbornly there — despite the wind and rain that have pounded the area. It is a reminder that some people demand accountability even for something as seemingly inconsequential as the decorations on a small tree.
You might wonder why people would go out of their way to strip this tree of ornaments that had no monetary value, other than to do it because they could get away with it. They glean some sense of perverse power. Well, then, certainly the thought has crossed your mind in two years or so: Why have we collectively been allowing people to go out of their way to destroy things in our culture for no reason other than that they get away with it?
And they too glean some sense of perverse power.
It is still hard to fathom the number of freedoms and amount of information and liberty we have willingly given away for the past two years during the pandemic to the influential cultural curators within government and institutions such as unions, academia, media and corporations.
It is still hard to fathom that we have collectively allowed the questioning power to get shunned from polite society and shamed into submission.
According to those curators, you should lose your job, have stricken your ability to express concerns in a public forum, and have your life turned upside down.
The leap from the containment at the beginning of the pandemic to the normalization of government overreach has been nothing short of breathtaking. Unfortunately, the same goes for our institutions — academia, unions, media and Big Tech.
We’ve normalized all kinds of genuinely destructive actions in the name of stopping the spread, such as shutting down schools on a dime, giving unchecked power to teachers unions, and firing people for not getting vaccinated. We’ve upended our children’s mental health, expanded our opioid crisis, mandated things we have no business mandating, and cratered our economy.
Many at the start lost parents and grandparents in nursing homes, where they were alone and isolated with no one who loved them to hold their hand as they took their last breath.
Power is a wretched force when in the wrong hands.
We have had press that have not challenged any of this authority, let alone done any solid investigative work on whether there was validation to go to all these extremes. And we’ve had a president who has been negligent on the crisis — his only success on COVID-19 has been to divide the country even more bitterly over the topic.
Whether you are pro-vaccine and anti-mandate or pro-mandate and pro-vaccine, a Democrat or a Republican, we cannot deny that we’ve given way too many people way too much power with minimal scrutiny or consequences.
It is a rot, a stain in our culture, one that cannot be fixed by applying more power with fewer consequences and certainly not with more politics. Instead, the resolve to repair it must come from people individually and within our communities.
In short, like the resilient little sign on the tree along the trail, we need to call out what is wrong and demand we get back what is rightly ours — our freedoms and our liberty.
There must be soul-searching in the coming days and weeks as each inevitable strain of COVID-19 tries to hold on to its existence and spread among us. The questioning of power isn’t the equivalent of treason or terrorism. The questioning of power is what we have always done throughout our history.
Without that spirit and determination, we become just like any other country whose people have bowed to power without questioning the ability to wield that power — and I am pretty confident none of us want our lives stripped of our freedom and our exceptionalism.
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.