Friday, November 30, 2001

As things continue to go awry for Afghanistan’s Taliban, its members now are seeking sanctuary in caves or in political asylum with governments sympathetic to their brand of moral rigorism. If they were a bit more cosmopolitan, they might seek political asylum in Montgomery County.
There, moral rigorism reigns. As all the world now knows, the Montgomery County Council recently passed one of the most Draconian (Talibanian?) anti-smoking laws in the country. It would put a fine of $750 on the head of any smoker whose exhausts were sniffed by a neurotic neighbor. According to this law, when tobacco smoke “crossed property lines” an offended neighbor could call in the cops.
When I say “as all the world knows” of the council’s legislation, I have in mind specifically the fervent forces of atmospheric purity and the embattled forces of personal freedom. Both created an uproar after the Montgomery County Council passed its environmental safety measure. The measure had the clean-air zealots kicking up their heals in glee assuming they still allow kicking up one’s heals. The measure had the forces of freedom laughing. Apparently even many Americans indifferent to the anti-smoking jihad were laughing.
“We’ve become the laughingstock of the world,” asseverated Michael L. Subin, a County Council member at large who opposed the tobacco measure.
Well, it is very reassuring to hear that laughing remains a vital tool of debate in public discourse. Mark Twain would approve. Perhaps, though, it is only a matter of time before the Montgomery County Council bans laughing, at least public laughing. Laughing in one’s home in Montgomery County might remain legal, at least until Montgomery County reformers decided that laughter that “crossed property lines” and offended neighbors should be punishable by a $750 fine.
Laughter seems to have been at the heart of what has been termed a “public opinion backlash,” for County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has vetoed the provision criminalizing smoking at home. Says Mr. Duncan, himself an obvious anti-smoking zealot, “Upon further consideration, however, it has become clear that the tobacco smoke provision will be nothing more than a tool to be used in squabbles between neighbors.”
Mr. Duncan and his anti-smoking allies on the County Council had better watch what they say about “squabbling neighbors.” The squabblers are a powerful element in his reformist constituency. They not only squabble about their neighbors’ smoke. They squabble against other odors wafting from their neighbors’ homes. The original bill opposed, according to The Washington Post, “such irritants as mold, excessive dust, pesticides, paint and carpet glue odors, or gases such as carbon monoxide.”
There are all sorts of “irritants” that offend the proponents of bills such as this that has made Montgomery County a “laughingstock.” There are dog walkers and pet keepers in general. There are people who wear fragrances, particularly in the subway. There are churches that ring church bells. All these things have roused the wrath of the kind of American who goes so far as to ban smoking at home. The anti-fragrance forces are particularly vocal, but so are the anti-church bell neurotics. And so you see why it is not so much of a reach for me to suggest that Montgomery County might be a plausible asylum for the Taliban. Once settled there, the Taliban might also find Americans who share their phobia against kite flying and the public playing of music.
Students of the Third World’s fanatics have noted that one of their chief characteristics is neurosis. Neurosis for our purposes may be termed the overreaction to stimuli. Backward people throughout the world display it when conditions do not meet their dull expectations. They suffer anxiety, insecurity, depression, irrational fears when, say in Kabul, a young boy flies a kite or in Montgomery County the fellow next door lights up a Marlboro. The neurotic in Kabul sees a dagger stabbing the heavens. The neurotic in Maryland sees dangerous gases heading toward his unprotected nostrils and into his very soul.
I do not mean to laugh it up at these poor souls’ expense. They really believe themselves to be imperiled by the harmless behavior of others. Those church bells wreck their afternoon naps. That after-shave lotion causes rashes and perhaps a ringing in the ears. Yet in a free society we must not let ourselves be tyrannized by overreaction. A sense of proportion must guide public policy for the sake of freedom and public peace.
If the ordinary folk of Montgomery County had not asserted common sense, imagine all the quarreling and general hostility that would have spread with neighbors calling the cops on suspected cigarette smoke. The place would have been like Afghanistan under the Taliban, and America’s moral rigorists seem to have a longer list of phobias than these turbaned zanies.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is editor in chief of the American Spectator.

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