The Playacting Over Masks Really Needed to End

The mask mandate on airplanes isn’t the only outmoded precaution that Americans should abandon.

Illustration of concentric circles of masks
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Tom Nichols is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter Peacefield.

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The U.S.-government mandate requiring mask wearing on transportation is now dead, and it was killed in the worst way possible. A judge deemed “not qualified” by the American Bar Association wrote a muddled decision that invalidated a regulation hated by the president who picked her, while overriding the authority of the executive branch and its expert advisers to make policy.

And yet, Federal District Judge Kathryn Mizelle just did President Joe Biden a favor. She got him out from under a policy that served little purpose. His administration will challenge the Trump-appointed jurist’s ruling—and it should, not to reimpose the mandate, but to preserve the power of the executive branch to issue national health regulations when needed.

But Biden should be glad, as the airlines clearly are, that the masking theater is over. Mask mandates were a stopgap, an emergency safety measure imposed by governments with few other options to stem the pandemic, and they fell away in other areas of public life once vaccines were widely available. The transportation masking rules proved hard to dislodge, however, and they serve as a good example of how prudent measures can turn into little more than symbolism.

It was time to end that mandate, and it is time to think as well about other kinds of pointless safety theater that we might bring to an end—including the security theater in schools and businesses that serves little purpose except to keep us all terrified of living our lives.

We can argue all day over whether masking on airplanes was really helping at this stage of the pandemic. Medical experts admitted that, once the hyper-infectious Omicron became the dominant variant of COVID, cloth masks were perhaps better than nothing, but not by much. And of course, when the experts tell us that “masks work,” they mean “when worn properly and consistently.” Anyone who has been on an airplane this year, however, knows that the mandate as a practical matter collapsed long ago. Masks under noses, masks around chins, masks on, masks off. Would you like another drink? Indeed I would, thank you, and I’ll just put my mask here by the side of my tray while I eat for another hour and chat with my unmasked seatmate.

This was not a mandate in any meaningful sense. Will there now be an uptick in COVID cases? Almost certainly, and although vaccination is still the best defense against serious illness, the Biden administration seems to realize that vaccination and booster rates have topped out, and that the rest of the public is less and less willing to comply with a rule that made a lot more sense two years ago.

For the record, I unflinchingly supported masking and lockdowns in the first year of the pandemic, before vaccines became available. I was pilloried on social media (and sometimes in person) by people who thought I was being overly cautious or even brainwashed by the sinister CDC. Now I am pelted with accusations on social media that I care nothing for children and immunocompromised people and the elderly. (I am 61 and have at least two conditions that increase the risk from COVID-19.) But the United States cannot organize all of society around a small number of vulnerable travelers—all of whom were at risk from travel before the pandemic—and saying so is not inhumane.

The Biden administration may half-heartedly appeal Mizelle’s ruling. But the playacting over masks on airplanes and trains is effectively over. Perhaps governments at all levels should take this opportunity to get ahead of other judges who might be tempted to ditch rules they don’t like.

Airport security is the low-hanging fruit. A terrorist tried to use a bomb in a sneaker more than 20 years ago, and we are still taking off our shoes. Some of this chaos is our own fault; Americans even now simply cannot get the hang of not trying to walk through security with bottles full of liquids, which are restricted due to hypothetical concerns about explosives. (A fair number of Americans are also idiots who try to walk through airports carrying loaded weapons.) Nonetheless, we are examining old people and children in small airports as if they are Mohamed Atta trying to get through Reagan National.

The result? Who knows. The TSA regularly misses dangerous items, which is inevitable given the agency’s mandate to screen everyone and everything. The rest of us use things like TSA PreCheck and the biometric-ID system Clear—services that are now basically a tax on frequent travelers. Terrorists know that we have hardened airline cockpits, that airline staff are better trained, and, perhaps most important, that passengers will fight back. They are moving on to other targets, while we all stay rooted in early 2002.

Likewise, it’s time to stop scaring the daylights out of children with shooter drills. Not only is the chance of being involved in a shooting tiny; you can teach children how to hide or evacuate a building by holding routine fire drills without terrifying them about armed attackers.

The same goes for businesses and other institutions. I was a federal employee for 25 years, and every year, I had to certify that I had passed all sorts of inane training requirements against threats such as active shooters, workplace violence, and terrorism. (Almost all of the answers on these tests were “call security” and “don’t interfere with the first responders.”) I’m sorry to say that if terrorists take over my hotel in the future, I probably won’t recall very much of my survival-and-evasion training, but for some reason it is now stuck in my head that I should lie flat if a grenade is tossed in my room, because grenades explode upward.

That’s about all I remember. John McClane, I am not.

Why are we doing all of this? Why is America keeping itself in a state of perpetual fear about going to work, flying on an airplane, or sending our children to school?

In part, this is the result of a hyperconnected society glued to a 24/7 news cycle. We are so immersed in the constant reporting of tragedy that the normal human difficulties with assessing risk degrade into irrationality. We worry about every possible disaster because somewhere, a disaster is taking place, and we experience it in real time with the victims, no matter where they are. We live in a cycle of safetyism and hypervigilance that not only creates fear, but raises our expectations about our own security to unreasonable levels.

Then we get in our cars and text about our frustrations while driving, a routine activity that is illegal in many states and is far more likely to kill our teenagers than a school shooting.

The irony, of course, is that we now live safer and healthier lives than at any time in human history, not because we drill for disasters every day, but because we have created a technological standard of living that protects us in ways we don’t even realize. Vehicles of every kind—on air, land, and sea—are safer now. Electrical systems in our homes are better insulated. Cellphones keep us linked to emergency services. You are more likely to survive driving a car not because you were terrified by gory movies about car crashes (the preferred method when I was a teenager in driving school in the 1970s), but because the car is designed to protect you almost without your participation. Still, we cannot live in a zero-defect, absolutely safe world, and creating a forest of regulations and precautions for every possible threat wears people out and becomes part of the background noise of our lives without making us any safer.

Government mandates are necessary and serve an important purpose, but they should be used sparingly. Good public policy is simple, easy to understand, and easy to follow. “You must wear a mask on an airplane but not in a sports arena, and you must keep that mask on unless you brought a bag of candy or a large coffee, and the mask can be anything you want it to be as long as it looks like it’s hanging somewhere near your face” is not a good policy. It’s an attempt to calm the nerves of people whose tolerance for risk—often for perfectly valid reasons—is lower than that of others.

Some years ago, I wrote a book titled The Death of Expertise, in which I decried people ignoring the advice of experts and professionals. People who have seen only the title have tried to quote the book back to me: Many experts, after all, favor mask mandates on airplanes and elsewhere, so shouldn’t we just defer to them? But that argument overlooks something important. “Experts,” I wrote in the book, “need to remember, always, that they are the servants and not the masters of a democratic society and a republican government. If citizens, however, are to be the masters, they must equip themselves not just with education, but with the kind of civic virtue that keeps them involved in the running of their own country.”

Experts, including doctors, can tell us only about numbers and probabilities. They cannot tell us what level of collective risk we should be willing to assume. Only we can make that decision, and we do, every day. We set speed limits that we know would save more people if they were lower; we allow products to be sold that we know will shorten the lives of some of the people who use them. Democratic societies routinely make such trade-offs. If the American public is willing to accept such risks, experts cannot countermand those decisions except by demonstrating that government action is immediately necessary as a response to an emergency that cannot be handled any other way. Our responsibility as citizens, however, is to make informed choices—and to always remember that a certain amount of risk and danger is the price of living in a free and open society.