- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2020

(CORRECTION: This piece originally contained an erroneous reference about the Serbian president’s intentions. The reference has been removed. The Washington Times regrets the error.)

In Belgrade, Serbia, soldiers are out and about, patrolling with machine guns, seeking to stop anyone on the street who has dared violate a presidential declaration of emergency and nationwide lockdown — all due to the coronavirus outbreak.

This is drastic times 10.

But what’s most chilling is that it’s very nearly imaginable that the scenes from Serbia could kind of, almost, maybe and perhaps — under the right circumstances, with the right conditions and pressures — be Anystreet, America, modern-day coronavirus.

Schools have been ordered closed.

Citizens have been ordered to stay home.

Businesses are shuttered; police are arresting social distancing violators; churches have been closed.

Pastors are being arrested.

“Florida megachurch pastor arrested for holding crowded services Sunday,” Fox News reported.

The story went on to report how Rodney Howard-Browne, head of The River at Tampa Bay Church, insisted on holding services because, as he argued, if Walmart could remain open as an essential, then so could his church. Police didn’t see it that way; they arrested him for “unlawful assembly” ad “violation of [a] public health emergency order.”

Crazy times in America, yes?

Now consider Serbia.

“Soldiers patrol the streets with their fingers on machine gun triggers,” The Associated Press reported. “The army guards an exhibition center-turned-makeshift-hospital crowded with rows of metal beds for those infected with the coronavirus. And Serbia’s president warns residents that Belgrade’s graveyards won’t be big enough to bury the dead if people ignore his government’s lockdown orders.”

It’s tyranny that’s taken hold of Serbia, it seems. President Aleksander Vucic has been accused of using the coronavirus crisis to seize powers he’s not been properly granted.

“[He’s assumed] full supremacy” over the government, said Rodoljub Sabic, a former state commission for personal data protection, to AP.

“He issues orders which are automatically accepted by the government,” Mr. Sabic went on. “No checks and balances.”

No questioning of any constitutional rights of the individual; no concerns about the long-term stifling of freedoms.

And how’d MR. Vucic manage to seize that power? How’d he get by with suspending parliament?

By declaring a state of emergency.

By declaring the end — a coronavirus-free existence — justifies the crackdown means.

It’s not that President Donald Trump is going to stand at the White House podium and threaten to shoot U.S. citizens who disobey government-imposed curfews and quarantines and stay-at-home orders.

But Serbia can still be a teaching moment for America. Serbia can still show the chill of what happens in panic situations when government assumes full control.

America is not Serbia; Serbia is not America.

But government is government is government. There are always those in government who will seek to use crisis situations to personal advantage and to grow bureaucratic powers. And freedoms don’t always fall at the point of a gun. Sometimes, they crumble quietly, on the calls for greater goods, on the causes of national security — or even, perhaps, quite possibly, over the concerns of a coronavirus.

After all, who would ever have thought a pastor in America, in First Amendment free America, would be arrested for the crime of holding church service.

• Cheryl Chumley can be reached at cchumley@washingtontimes.com or on Twitter, @ckchumley. Listen to her podcast “Bold and Blunt” by clicking HERE. And never miss her column; subscribe to her newsletter by clicking HERE.

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