The violent rhetoric of the antivaccine movement intensifies

I’ve written about the violent rhetoric of the antivaccine movement a number of times, up to and including concerns about attacks on journalists reporting on the movement from a science-based perspective. Of course, when antivaxers liken vaccine mandates to the Holocaust, rape, human trafficking, and all manner of other atrocities and crimes, it’s not surprising that what I’ve been warning about at least since 2015 might be on the verge of coming to pass, namely violence against doctors and others trying to protect public health:

As anti-vaccination groups fight back against public health campaigns to promote immunization in the face of measles outbreaks, some Canadian doctors say the battle has escalated beyond social media platforms to personal threats and attacks.

“The pitchforks are coming out,” said Dr. Anna Wolak, a family physician in Vancouver who has publicly spoken out on social media about the importance of vaccination — both as a doctor and the mother of three children.

Although most patients and many people in the community have been supportive, Wolak said she has also been subjected to furious comments — both in person and through social media.

“Patients have come in and told me that they can’t believe I would deliberately poison my children,” Wolak said in an email to CBC News.

“Some of those have threatened to report me to the [provincial regulatory] college because they consider me a threat to children.”

Harassment and violent rhetoric, it’s what’s for dinner. Indeed, it’s what antivaxers have been about for a very long time. Paul Offit, for example, knows. He reported harassment and death threats against him and his family in his book, Autism’s False Prophets. I’ve experienced it, albeit only with rare death threats, in the way that antivaxers have tried to get me fired from my job on more than one occasion and how Mike Adams went on a tear of defamation against me in 2016. I particularly remember the time when antivaxer Jake Crosby (then at that wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery, Age of Autism, orchestrated a campaign of complaints against me trying to get me fired based on a nonexistent undisclosed conflict of interest. The medical school dean at the time called me up and asked me if I felt threatened. I did, a little, but that’s only because the antivaxers coming after me didn’t live in southeast Michigan. Then there was the time an anonymous antivaxer complained to my boss over a post about Andrew Spourdalakis.

When I first noticed this uptick in violent rhetoric, which appeared to be associated with SB 277 and the elimination of nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates in California, I noted it primarily in the form of memes shared on Facebook, memes like these:

Violent rhetoric about vaccines
Violent rhetoric about vaccines
Violent rhetoric about vaccines
Violent rhetoric about vaccines

You get the idea. I have a lot more where these came from, like this one that’s so incredibly over-the-top racist that I can’t decide if it was a Poe or an incredibly stupid and racist white guy imagining what he thinks a black “gangsta” talks like, although looking at the gallery of the guy who created this meme, I strongly suspect it’s the latter:

Violent rhetoric about vaccines

I’ve been collecting antivaccine memes like this with violent rhetoric. The reason is that, when and if antivaxers resort to violence, I have a record of some of the things they’ve been saying on social media. In any event, recently, I’ve been discussing how antivaxers have been using social media to attack physicians who stand up for vaccines, with a distinct intent to silence them by making them fearful enough to conclude that standing up for science is just not worth the harassment. I’ve also been discussing what doctors have been trying to do to counter such harassment. Of course, I can’t help but note the paranoid ideation behind these memes, as if jackbooted vaccine thugs are on the way to knock down doors, hold children down and inject them with vaccines, and send the parents to the gulag, when in reality at most what we are seeing is a tightening of school vaccine mandates.

So, I wish I could say I was surprised by the story I quoted above, but I’m not. Indeed, as I read I expected to learn worse about antivaxers, and, sadly, I was not disappointed:

Although those interactions have been hurtful, Wolak said she has not received any “overt threats” of physical harm — something that has happened in recent months to at least two other Canadian doctors.

One of the recipients of the threats is in Toronto. The other is in Eastern Canada. They say they have both received a steady stream of emails ranging from harassment to threats — about 200 of which came from the same email address — since the fall.

CBC News has agreed to protect the identities of both doctors because they are afraid they will be the target of further threats.

One email sent to both of them said: “Come at my son with another vaccine and I WILL make sure you NEVER support vaccines EVER AGAIN! This email isn’t even CLOSE TO LISTENING TO ME IN PERSON!”

“Signed, A Momma With Claws OUT!”

Of course, the image of the “mama bear with her claws out,” ready to protect her cubs children is a favorite one among antivaxers, one that I’ve seen many times before. Here’s an example:

Violent rhetoric about vaccines

For example, here’s a pseudonymous antivaxer using just that analogy:

Towards my children, I am feeling extra protective. Towards my rights, I am like a mean mama bear who got poked during the middle of a nap. Towards the creators of the hysteria that all of a sudden, for the first time in history, deemed one child more important and makes my child a perceived threat to everyone else’s, I am angry.

And on Facebook, here’s another example:

I hope his spelling’s better than momma bear’s…

In any event, according to the news story, the emails with the violent rhetoric all came from the US, because of course they did, and Paul Offit is quoted pointing out:

The goal is to shut you up,” he said. “And it certainly works. There are a number of people who choose not to stand up in this arena because they know that it means that they’re going to be personally targeted.

Of course, in a story like this, the journalist feels obligated to find someone on the “other side” who can speak for antivaxers. To an increasing degree, these days it’s often our old friend Del Bigtree, producer of the antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary, VAXXED, who is the go-to antivaccine spokesperson, having usurped the role from Jenny McCarthy, J. B. Handley, and Andrew Wakefield:

Del Bigtree, a prominent anti-vaccine activist in the U.S., told CBC News he would “absolutely … discourage any sort of aggressive talk or violence of any kind.”

Bigtree also said he didn’t believe the threats would have come from anyone who was affiliated with his movement. 

At this point, I almost spit up the water I was sipping as I typed. Del Bigtree, claiming that he would discourage any sort of aggressive talk or violence? For Del Bigtree to claim that he discourages violent rhetoric is disingenuous as hell, as I’ve catalogued examples of him doing exactly the opposite. For instance, when he was in Michigan in 2016, Bigtree’s rhetoric was anything but nonviolent. Here’s the situation. He was in our state visiting various antivaccine-sympathetic legislators in the run-up to the election and concluded his visit by appearing a fundraiser for the Michigan Vaccine Freedom PAC for $125 a head in Ferndale, a northern suburb of Detroit.

During his talk, Del Bigtree portrayed the issue of school vaccine mandates as our “freedom hanging in the balance,” falsely equating school vaccine mandates with fascism and finishing his talk comparing himself and his audience to our Founding Fathers and their fight against the British to achieve freedom and self-determination, saying:

If we do not fight now, then there will be nothing left to fight for. And I think that is where everyone in this room, I pray you realize how important you are in this historic moment. We will never be stronger than we are right now. We will never be healthier than we are right now. Our children are looking like this, a generation of children, as we’ve said on The Doctors television show this is the first generation of children that will not live to be as old as their parents. Are we going to stand…are we going to sit down and take it? Or are we going to stand up and say: This is a historic moment, that my forefathers, those from Jefferson all the way to Martin Luther King, the moments where people stood up and something inside of them said I’m going to stand for freedom and I’m going to stand for it now. That is in our DNA. It is pumping through me, and I pray that you feel it pumping through you, because we must look back. Our grandchildren will look back and thank us for having stood up one more time and been the generation that said, “We the People of the United States of America stood for freedom, stand for freedom. We will die for freedom today.

OK, this is definitely overwrought but not quite violent rhetoric yet. It skirts the edge of violence but maintains a bit of plausible deniability with respect to accusations of inciting violence. However, it’s easy to understand how this sort of rhetoric could get antivaxers worked up to the point where they might start threatening doctors and possibly even doing violence. However, he hasn’t always managed to keep himself under control. For instance, around the same time, he said, “Now’s the time” for guns:


The full video is here:

Here’s what Bigtree said:

…but now we’re watching the most powerful lobby in the country and in the world poisoning our children. And our government is helping them. What are we going to do about it? We have the power. But we have got to stop being afraid to talk about it. If you’re afraid to talk about it, your Twitters, your Facebooks, I don’t want to bring it up at my PTA meeting, I don’t want to at lunch or at Thanksgiving dinner, then I can imagine those same conversations were happening in Nazi Germany among the Jewish people. Let’s not talk about it. I don’t want to bring it into my reality. It’s still 20 miles away. I’m still allowed in this theater, not that one. All I have to get is this little star. All I have to do is to sign this little thing saying that I’m not going to vaccinate because I think they’re dangerous—and they are dangerous. I’m just going to sign this paper. I’m going to let them put me in a log. At some point, they have gone too far.

Do you think it’s a good idea to let the government own your baby’s body and right behind it your body? That is the end for me. Anyone who believes in the right to bear arms. To stand up against your government. I don’t know what you were saving that gun for then. I don’t know when you planned on using it if they were going to take control of your own body away.

It’s now. Now’s the time.

You heard that right. Right around the time SB 277, the law California passed in 2015 to eliminate nonmedical exemptions, was taking effect, Del Bigtree actually strongly implied that antivaccine activists opposed to SB 277 should consider taking up arms to resist. Did he really forget the red meat rhetoric he’s been feeding to his antivaccine base since VAXXED was released? As Matt Carey noted, there was nervous laughter after Bigtree’s remarks and in the Facebook post with this video, there were 1,500 responses, with not one of them rejecting a call to violence.

Del Bigtree is not the only person who uses apocalyptic language to describe school vaccine mandates. For example, the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, Barbara Loe Fisher, has also invoked freedom and the Founding Fathers to attack vaccine mandates:

A constitutional democracy promotes fair and equal justice for all. So the authors of the Declaration of Independence rejected rule by an elitist ruling class of citizens who are considered to be more important and qualified to govern without the consent of those being governed. The Bill of Rights in the US Constitution makes it clear that respect for the natural rights of individuals limits the power of the state. As Thomas Jefferson put it: “the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

Why, then, are we allowing an elite aristocracy of doctors and professors to bully people who disagree with them about laws that disempower parents and place an unequal vaccine risk burden on vulnerable children in the name of the public health?

She’s also invoked Nazis and fascism, describing children as “human sacrifices” in the war against microbes:

Today the battlefield of the 200-year war on microbes is littered with human casualties far too numerous to count while, in a natural fight to survive, the microbes have evolved to evade the vaccines. And the scientists and physicians in leadership positions determined to win that war continue to fire away, stepping around the bodies of vaccine-damaged children lying on the ground.

Do I think that public health officials flying the science flag with a utilitarian star on it wake up every day and say to themselves, “I want to hurt a child today?” Of course not. Most doctors and scientists want to help, not harm people. Do I think they have lost their way, blinded by a utilitarian pseudo-ethic that makes it easy to ignore the bodies lying on the ground so they can allow themselves to believe that human sacrifice is ethical when it serves the greater good? Yes, I do.

It’s not directly violent rhetoric, but you can see how it might encourage violence.

Of course, the apocalyptic language used by the antivaccine movement, including Del Bigtree, is so inflammatory that it would not surprise me in the least if it inspired someone to do violence against pro-vaccine advocates or a doctor or nurse. After all, if vaccination is a Holocaust, isn’t violence justified to stop it? If vaccination is akin to rape or sexual assault, isn’t violence justified to stop it? If vaccination is human sacrifice, then isn’t violence justified to stop it? Seriously? It doesn’t take explicitly violent rhetoric to inspire violence. Hyperbole and massively over-the-top analogies likening vaccination to all sorts of horrific crimes and atrocities are enough, particularly when there are plenty of antivaxers like Kent Heckenlively, who envision themselves as heroic fighters against evil in defense of their children.

What do I mean? Here’s the aforementioned Kent Heckenlively, fantasizing himself Aragorn, son of Arathorn, charging the Black Gate of Mordor in a futile attack:

When I watch I imagine myself as Aragorn, taking the Dimholt Road under the mountain, clutching the sword, Anduril, Flame of the West, offering a deal to the souls of the dishonored dead if they would join me in battle. I picture myself as Aragon, astride my horse in front of the Black Gate, telling my troops, I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight! Then I jump off my horse, and with the setting sun behind me, a reckless, almost manic glint in my eye and a crooked grin, I am first to charge into the enemy army.

As I’ve noted before, this is, of course, one of my favorite scenes from both The Lord of the Rings books and movies. In it, the last heir of Isildur, Aragorn, brought his forces to the Black Gate of Mordor to challenge the Dark Lord Sauron to battle, not with any hope of victory, but as a diversion to distract him long enough to allow the hobbits Frodo and Sam to cross Mordor and reach Mount Doom, there to destroy the One Ring, the source of Sauron’s power, by throwing it into the Crack of Doom. Aragorn and his companions fully expected to die in the effort, and it looked as though they would do just that after hordes of orcs issued forth from the Black Gate and the battle was joined. They were saved because Sam and Frodo did reach Mount Doom and the ring was destroyed, thus destroying Sauron’s power and causing his armies to flee. The point, of course, was that Heckenlively fantasizes himself as a heroic figure from the world of epic fantasy like Aragorn fighting an epic battle against vaccine mandates, ready to die even as just a diversion.

Two months ago, Mike Adams published an article entitled A serious question: When will the first “vaccine enforcers” be shot by parents defending their children against the felony assault of forced immunizations? In it, his violent rhetoric asserts that “forced immunization with a potentially deadly substance is a felony assault,” stating:

The right of a parent to protect her child from a violent assault is inherently understood across America, and that right is enshrined both in common law and specific state law almost everywhere. If a unscrupulous person attempts to stab your child with a knife, or penetrate your child in an act of pedophilia rape, or harm your child by kidnapping or assaulting them, you as the parent have every right to deploy all means of self-defense, including, where legal, firearms.

This right to protect children from violent assaults is not nullified by the false authority of the vaccine deep state, which is steeped in felony crimes, scientific fraud, the abuse of children as human guinea pigs for medical experiments, and a long history of cover-ups to bury the truth about vaccine injuries. Regardless of the false claims of “safety” by the vaccine industry, such claims do not overrule the basic human right of self-defense. Even if vaccines had a perfect safety record and killed no children at all, no medical intervention is justified without informed consent.

Yes, Adams, like Bigtree, argues that parents have the right to defend their children against the “violent attack” of vaccination using any means necessary, including firearms.

Although sometimes the violent rhetoric slips through, basically leaders of the antivaccine movement fire up their followers with apocalyptic rhetoric that isn’t explicitly violent; the violence is implied. Then, when their followers start threatening doctors with violence, they’re shocked—shocked!—that their followers would do such a thing and deny encouraging them with “aggressive talk.” The problem is that some of them, like Del Bigtree, have foolishly left video and audio evidence of the violent rhetoric they routinely use to fire up their radical followers. When the first doctor is actually attacked or killed, the blood will also be on their hands.