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Port: In the coronavirus fight, choice is better than force

If we get to the point where we have to use force, we've already lost.

West Fargo Mayor Bernie Dardis issues a stay-home directive with Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney on Tuesday, April 7, at Fargo City Hall. Dardis said wearing a face mask and gloves is “challenging for me” but that it's necessary to help protect his family. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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MINOT, N.D. — One of my favorite books of all time, one which frightened and challenged the 13-year-old version of me, is Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

I'm sure you know it. It's in the canon of great American literature and often cited when discussions turn to issues of free speech.

As an adult, I've come to appreciate that one of the terrifying aspects of Bradbury's story is that it isn't the state which is perpetrating the censorship.

As Bradbury himself noted, it's not some cruel dictator or ruling faction which is causing books to be burned. It is the people who are the culprits .

It was something they were doing to themselves.


I was thinking about that yesterday when the city leaders of Fargo and West Fargo decided to issue a "stay home" directive .

Yes, that was a government order (dubious in its legality and capacity to be enforced). Still, it was in response to a vociferous faction of the public who are busy filling social media with pique over what their neighbors are doing in this time of pandemic.

They've been demanding action from the government, and I guess they got it.

At least a gesture, anyway. I'm still not certain that what Fargo and West Fargo are doing is so different, in any meaningful way, from what Gov. Doug Burgum has already ordered.

The anger of those concerned about negligence in social distancing is understandable, to a point, and I agree with the sentiment behind the order the cities issued.

The only way past this thing is through it.

The shortest and least fraught way through it is social distancing.

Close your businesses. Stay at home as much as you can. The social and economic cost is high, but it's the price of preventing something worse . Those who aren't getting with the program are only prolonging the pain for everyone.


Still, even as I agree with the hoped-for outcome, I worry about the efficacy of policies that seek to force people into behaving the right way.

We should want people to choose to do the right thing.

Force often backfires.

Besides, we have far too much confidence in our government's ability to force people to do the right thing.

Think of our country's attempt to outlaw the sale and use of alcohol. Excessive drinking was a genuine problem in that era, but our nation's effort to address that problem through prohibition resulted in one of the colossal public policy failures of all time. Murderous gangsters were made very rich. The alcohol served to Americans became far less safe. Our political leaders were made to look foolish.

Prohibition had enormous social and financial costs and ultimately didn't stop anyone who wanted a drink from getting one.

Force didn't work.

What has worked, what has improved our society's relationship with alcohol, is an emphasis on people choosing to act responsibly, even as we acknowledge that many people won't make that choice consistently.


Persuasion is our best tool in the fight against coronavirus. We need North Dakotans, we need Americans and our neighbors around the globe, to choose to act responsibly right now.

If we get to the point where we have to use force, we've already lost.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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