I’ve been writing about the violent rhetoric coming from the antivaccine movement for many years now. One strain of such rhetoric has been the call for Nuremberg-style tribunals for physicians, public health officials, and politicians advocating science-based mitigations against COVID-19, such as mask and vaccine mandates, for their “crimes,” to the point that I even coined a term for this antivax trope, the “Nuremberg gambit.” With disturbing frequency, too, along with this call for “Nuremberg 2.0” there is often the implication (or the outright statement) that the “justice” or “accountability” meted out after these tribunals will include hanging, just as some of the doctors convicted at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial were hanged for their crimes. There are even a number of hashtags on Twitter for the idea—although it can get confusing because in some of them calls for “Nuremberg 2.0” are mixed with calls for a war crimes tribunal for Vladimir Putin for his invasion of Ukraine—some quite threatening sounding, such as #NurembergCode, #NurembergTribunal, #Nuremberg2, #NurembergTrialsForCovid, and #Nuremberg2ticktock, among others. Unfortunately, sanitized versions of what was once a sentiment restricted to the deepest, darkest, most bonkers antivax underground are appearing from people like Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) author Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, who, fresh off his having parroted other old antivax talking points, recently Tweeted this:
As you will see, Dr. Bhattacharya’s GBD coauthor Martin Kulldorff goes even further. First, though, let’s deal with what Dr. Bhattacharya Tweeted and show why it echoes an old antivax trope, a fantasy of “justice”—in reality retribution”—against vaccine advocates and public health officials. I’ll deal with one concern right out of the box.
But, wait! you say, Dr. Bhattacharya isn’t calling for blood. He isn’t demanding that we “string the bastards up” or horsewhip vaccine advocates, as I have seen—for instance—antivaxxers and anti-GMO cranks and quacks do going back nearly 20 years. True enough. Notice how Dr. Bhattacharya cleverly phrased his observation as a prediction that “they” (i.e., “regular people,” working-class, poor, etc.)—not he—will demand that “justice” be meted out to government public health officials and public health scientists and advocates who lobbied for mask and vaccine mandates and “lockdowns.” It’s an example of plausible deniability. I say this because I bet that Dr. Bhattacharya is well aware of calls for “justice” directed against public health officials coming from his supporters, and by phrasing his Tweet as an observation, he can then say, “No, I didn’t call for a ‘Nuremberg 2.0.’ I just observed that the people will demand it.” It also echoes his not infrequent claim that it was the “laptop class” who demanded punishing “lockdowns” that barely effected them but disproportionately affected the poor and working class, who will, of course, naturally want justice.
Also, he likes to use imagery of war:
As an aside, let me just observe that Dr. Bhattacharya’s frequent invocation of the “laptop class” as COVID-19 bogeymen unconcerned about the harms their interventions were causing always struck me as a combination of a straw man so enormous that if set on fire it could be seen from space plus breathtaking hypocrisy. After all, no public health official advocating business closures and shelter-in-place orders early in the pandemic denied potential harms. (It’s not their fault that governments didn’t adequately support those whose livelihoods were impacted by such orders.) moreover, Dr. Bhattacharya himself is most definitely part of the “laptop class.” Although he is an MD, he’s a Stanford University academic and researcher, not a clinician. He never did a residency and, as far as I can tell, never practiced clinical medicine after medical school, which means that he has never treated a COVID-19 patient, nor has he struggled (for example) to provide care to cancer patients (as I have), due to the effects of the pandemic overwhelming hospitals and, now, due to severe staffing shortages now affecting my hospitals and many others. He could easily do most of his work from home, and I’d be willing to bet that in 2020 and much of 2021 he did.
Yet, having been ensconced in his ivory tower and home office, in October 2020 he joined his fellow GBD authors Martin Kulldorff (then a professor at Harvard) and Sunetra Gupta (a professor at Oxford) at the headquarters of the libertarian “free market” think tank American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) for a confab with like-minded AIER officials, reporters, and scientists to discuss a “natural herd immunity” approach to the pandemic, ending “lockdowns,” and using “focused protection” for the elderly and those at high risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19. The result was the GBD, which advocated a “natural herd immunity” approach to the pandemic, ending “lockdowns,” and using “focused protection” for the elderly and those at high risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19.
I’ve written before a number of times about how the GBD is a campaign that has always been far more about ideology than science and is more what we in the skeptics biz call “magnified minority” of the sort long used by science denying cranks of all varieties, including creationists, HIV/AIDS denialists, and antivaxxers. The idea is to write a statement denying some aspect of science and to get a bunch of what appear to be “experts” to sign it. Nearly always, the vast majority of the “experts” who sign such documents are not really experts at all, but they appear to be to the general public. Moreover the GBD originated in ideology from the new merchants of doubt, not science, and the GBD’s “focused protection” was never really a viable strategy—a great argument why can be found here, with a good recounting of why the GBD was more of a branding campaign than a serious proposal here—but rather cover for opposing collective action to slow the spread of COVID-19 using a seemingly scientific rationale that “natural herd immunity” would be reached faster that way. I always ask now: How’d that work out, with Delta and Omicron?)
Before moving on, I will warn you that this post contains a lot of embedded Tweets. I realize that some of my regular readers don’t like this, but I also realize that some might think I’m exaggerating if I don’t provide lots of documentation. So I will.
Kicking up the retribution fantasy a notch above Dr. Bhattacharya’s
Back to the fantasy of retribution. Just yesterday morning, I saw this from a certain art dealer who somehow has managed to rebrand himself as a COVID-19 expert, even as he deludes himself that he knows more than the experts and has been correct far more often than they have, Eli Klein:
Leaving aside the most feared typo on earth when you meant to write the word “public” (which, admittedly, led to some fairly hilarious responses about “pubic trials”), Mr. Klein is kicking it up a notch from Dr. Bhattacharya’s more plausibly deniable Tweet, calling for public trials of “experts” over the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But wait, Orac! you say. Klein isn’t calling for public hangings! True enough, at least explicitly. Implicitly, however, his followers certainly got the hint without any help:
Elsewhere on Twitter:
Let’s not forget, too, that it’s not just doctors who are being targeted with calls for “Nuremberg 2.0.” In January’s “Defeat the Mandates” rally, antivax leader Del Bigtree was calling to expand “Nuremberg 2.0” to the press as well:
After all that hate—and, believe me, I could have posted ten times the number of Tweets advocating variations on the same theme—here’s a humorous little chaser for you (hopefully) to chuckle over before I move on to discussing the history of this trope:
As I’ve written many times before, the message that “they” will be held “accountable” that Dr. Bhattacharya is promoting is an obvious echo of a longstanding antivaccine trope that public health officials will be somehow held accountable for the “harms” done by their vaccination program. Again, I’m sure that, should he see this post, he will whine to high heaven that he was not advocating killing “lockdowners” or mask and vaccine mandate advocates, and I’m sure he probably wasn’t. He might even claim that he wasn’t even advocating a “Nuremberg 2.0” tribunal for them at all, merely observing that “they” (the “people”) would. If it is true that that’s not what he intended by his statement, then, after his education bout this trope, I would expect that, at the minimum, he will never make such a statement again. Better would be for him to apologize and delete the Tweet. I predict that he will do neither.
At least I haven’t yet been able to find any examples of Sunetra Gupta writing something similar. So there’s that.
Echos of “String the bastards up!”
Let’s get back to the history of this “Nuremberg 2.0” or “tribunal” trope, at least from when I first started encountering it. When I first started blogging, that “harm” was supposedly autism‚—at least, then the most common antivaccine claim was that vaccines cause autism—but also included mental retardation, autoimmune diseases, neurologic injury and death. Indeed, the “Nuremberg gambit” is so hoary that two of the founders of the modern day antivaccine movement, Andrew Wakefield and Barbara Loe Fisher, have invoked it going back to long before the pandemic:
During her talk, Barbara Loe Fisher, the grande dame of the American anti-vaccine movement, explained how vaccines are a “de facto selection of the genetically vulnerable for sacrifice” and said that doctors who administer vaccines are the moral equivalent of “the doctors tried at Nuremberg.” (That parallel, she said, had been pointed out to her by Andrew Wakefield, in whose honor the 2009 conference was held.)
Interestingly, one of the earlier versions of this trope came from Mark Sircus, whom I wrote about just this Monday for his promotion of MMS (a.k.a. bleach) to treat COVID-19 and cancer. In 2011, Sircus wrote a post for his blog (now gone and this post only archived at the Wayback Machine) entitled String the Bastards Up. As it’s been a while since I last quoted Sircus’ rant, I’ll take the liberty of doing so again, and at greater length than I did the last time:
In general I am against the death penalty as I am against killing of any kind. Though the Bible sanctions death and killing, it is clearly against murder and the taking of innocent life. We could argue all day about what some people clearly seem to deserve and we could argue about the legitimacy of many things from the Old Testament or anything else written that the elites of the world have had their dirty fingers in.
For all those who are for the death penalty, my message will be clear. I am calling for the conviction and the worst possible punishment under the law for certain people in government who are in the medical field. There seems to be no limit to what our present society will accept. We are letting the bankers and the shysters on Wall Street destroy western civilization, allowing them the fattest paychecks on earth as a reward. And we are letting doctors in white coats inject poisonous heavy metals into babies and paying them well for it.
They say there is a sucker born every minute but I think things have gotten out of hand. Before I go into detail about what has been clear to many of us for years I want to bring the image of the case of a monster who commits mass murder and torments children and their parents. In this case we have a group of them who deserve to be lynched and they work for the federal government at the Centers of Disease Control (CDC).
Most people would have no contention with lining up mass tormentors of children against a wall with the punishment of life imprisonment in solitary confinement. It certainly looks like we have solid evidence that there are people who have conspired to mislead doctors so they continue to inject highly dangerous chemicals into children.
Sound familiar? Sircus starts out by saying he’s normally against killing of any kind, but he views “them” as so evil and guilty of such atrocities that he’s willing to make an exception just for them, because he views them as uniquely deserving of a horrible death.
As do some of the commenters, such as “Joyce”:
I agree with Dr. Sircus, but we need to identify the bastards to be strung up and to do that we have to go far above or behind the CDC, Monsanto, WHO, the FDA to find who the one world global government, aka the new world order “elitists” are because they are the ones giving the orders their brainwashed puppets are following.
Same as it ever was. This was 11 years ago. The rhetoric is only worse now.
From hanging to the guillotine?
With the background that I discussed in mind, let’s move on to take a look at what Dr. Bhattacharya’s GBD coauthor Dr. Kulldorff has been saying lately:
As hard as it might have been a couple of years ago to believe that he might do such a thing, a few months ago Dr. Kuldorff did indeed Tweet out an article from the Brownstone Institute’s founder Jeffery Tucker asking who will be held responsible. Lest you fail to see the subtext, Tucker even includes an image of a guillotine! (I’ll just take this opportunity to remind people that Tucker, as the editorial director of AIER in 2020, was in the “room where it happened” as the GBD was being drafted and then later founded the Brownstone Institute as the “spiritual child of the GBD.”)
This development did not escape some snark:
Indeed. In November, Kulldorff announced that he was leaving Harvard in order to become the scientific director at the Brownstone Institute. In that role, Dr. Kulldorff, apparently sees no problem with his new bosses including such imagery in a post about holding “them” accountable or the historical association of the guillotine with executions during Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. By Tweeting a link to the article above, he also appears to be enthusiastically agreeing with Mr. Tucker’s assessment, quoted here from the article:
Much of this reminds me of World War I, the “Great War.” Look up the causes. They are all amorphous. Nationalism. An assassination. Treaties. Diplomatic confusions. The Serbs. Meanwhile none of these reasons can actually account for 20 million dead, 21 million wounded, and wrecked economies and lives all over the world, to say nothing of the Great Depression and rise of Hitler that came as a result of this appalling disaster.
Despite investigations, countless books, public hearings, and public fury that lasted a decade or more after the Great War, there never was anyone who accepted responsibility. We saw a repeat of the same following the Iraq War. Is there any record of anyone who said “I made the decision and I was wrong”?
So it might be for the lockdowns and mandates of 2020 and 2021. The carnage is unspeakable and will last a generation or two or more. Meanwhile, the people responsible are slowly slipping out of public life, finding new jobs and sanitizing their hands of any responsibility. They are scrubbing resumes and, when asked, blaming anyone and everyone else but themselves.
This is the moment in which we find ourselves: a ruling class terrified of being found out, called out, and held accountable, and therefore incentivized to generate an endless series of excuses, scapegoats, and distractions (“You need another shot!”).
Note the nod to antivaxxers, with Tucker’s reference to boosters. This is not the only time Dr. Kulldorff has expressed such views, either. For example:
That sounds an awful lot like what Tucker has written. To conclude his piece, after adding that it is “very likely that the people who did this to us will never be held accountable” and that this likely result is “not and will not be justice or anything that even vaguely resembles justice,” Tucker then writes:
That is what history would suggest, in any case. If it is different this time and the perpetrators actually do face some consequences, it would still not make things right, but at least it would set a fabulous precedent for the future.
I’ll just emphasize that that’s Brownstone Institute founder Jeffrey Tucker fervently hoping that things will be different this time and that “they” will actually face “some consequences” (left intentionally vague) for their “crimes,” thus setting “a fabulous precedent for the future.”
Again, Tucker will likely claim that he wasn’t calling for Anthony Fauci, for instance, to be hanged or have his head lopped off after a trial. He does, however, very much appear to be calling for something like an investigation, a trial, and punishment before all the miscreants can slink away, and thereby, like Dr. Bhattacharya, unwittingly (I hope) echoing the calls of antivaxxers going back a long time. I can’t help but ask, though: If Tucker wasn’t calling for executions, why did he and the Brownstone Institute choose a very menacing image of a guillotine? They could have chosen literally any other image, but they didn’t. They chose a view of a guillotine from beneath the lunette that emphasizes the blade coming down, a very ominous and threatening image. (It very much looks like the view of a guillotine that someone near the front of the crowd baying for blood during the Reign of Terror might have had—or the view that someone walking up the steps to be executed might have had.) If Tucker and the Brownstone Institute were really interested in portraying justice, instead of retribution, wouldn’t an image of a courtroom or a jury—or of virtually anything other than a guillotine—have been more appropriate? Did Dr. Kulldorff not even see the not-so-subtle message that such an image paired with an article like Tucker’s broadcasts?
It’s hard not to conclude that Tucker was dog whistling to the antivaccine/anti-“lockdown”/antimask crowd that does want to see executions. Certainly, some got the message, for example:
Dr. Bhattacharya, of course, is a senior scientific scholar at the Brownstone Institute. Just like Dr. Kulldorff, he can’t easily disavow this sort of rhetoric either, given that he can easily leave or speak out against it if it truly offends him. Of course, Brownstone Institute is working according to a strategy: Call for reasonably “scientific debate” over the GBD, “lockdowns,” and mask and vaccine mandates while lamenting the “incivility” of GBD critics.
Meanwhile, they say they want “reasonable scientific debate”:
While using the same sort of rhetoric that antivaxxers have used as long as I’ve been paying attention to them and, I’m sure, long before:
Speaking of guillotines, as much as I hate to do it, I have to bring up Kent Heckenlively again because he’s such a good example and I like to cite him whenever this topic comes up because he provides so much background material. He’s a one man library of these sorts of old antiavccine tropes, and a good reminder that if you say anything that even sounds remotely like something Kent Heckenlively has written you rally should reexamine your life to ask how you could have gone so wrong:
Heckenlively isn’t just a lone crank, either. It would be nice if he were, but he’s not, and in the age of COVID-19 he really isn’t in any way unique among. antivaxxers. For instance, there was this lovely gem of a fantasy of future victory and retribution against vaccine advocates from 2015, entitled I Will Accept Your Surrender. Heckenlively begins:
I’ve made this offer several times in the past. I’m making it again. I am willing to accept the surrender of those who have perverted science, harmed a generation of children, and even as of this late date are willing to harm more children so as to not to upset the balance of their lives.
Then he concludes:
And so I’m offering you a way out. A complete and unconditional surrender. You can’t ask what we’re going to do to you. You’re just going to have to trust in our good graces. Maybe sometime in the distant future your children and family might believe you had a shred of courage if you act at this very moment. But the time for choosing is drawing near. Choose wisely.
Note the menace. Also note that I did choose wisely and declined Mr. Heckenlively’s kind offer.
More recently, antivaxxer, quack, and all-around conspiracy theorist Mike Adams cranked up the crazy to 11, as he is always wont to do when he writes anything, and demanded the executions of scientists “who use children for covid vaccine medical experiments.
This was a bit far even for Adams, and he did walk it back a little:
UPDATE: This article is being misconstrued. It does not call for violence. It calls for Nuremberg style trials against those researchers who are using children for medical experiments.
This article is being removed until further notice.
What have I been saying all along, though? That’s right. The call for “Nuremberg 2.0” (as in Nuremberg-style tribunals to judge vaccine advocates and public health officials) is a very old antivaccine trope. Where Adams erred was in getting too carried away and saying the quiet part out loud by calling for executions. He even issued a rare apology, kind of, in record time:
Earlier this morning, Natural News published an article calling for Nuremberg-style trials for researchers who use human children for medical experiments.
The article called for court hearings, prosecutions and punishments against those carrying out these crimes against humanity, in much the same way that Nazi war criminals were prosecuted.
The article was misconstrued as calling for violence against vaccine researchers, even though it specifically emphasized court-ordered prosecutions and punishments and additionally called for due process so that “society” could decide the punishments for those engaging in medical violence against children.
Nope. As I said at the time, Adams’ article was not “misconstrued.” It was quite clear what he was saying. He was calling for executions of scientists, but “court-ordered” executions after trials. That’s the dodge. What most people don’t know because they haven’t been following antivaxxers as long as I and others have is that it’s actually long been a recurring theme in antivaccine fantasies that pro-vaccine physicians and scientists be subjected to “Nuremberg” trials for their “crimes against humanity.” They also, apparently, don’t see how this desire for retribution is linked with even darker politics.
Consequences that Dr. Bhattacharya is likely unaware of
There are real consequences to this sort of rhetoric, too, as one scientist found out yesterday after having written about this phenomenon with respect to Drs. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff on Twitter. I can’t show you his Tweets, because he decided to delete them after a torrent of abuse and insinuations that he had an ulterior motive or wasn’t being honest, and I won’t mention his name. (Some of you no doubt know who he is.) Then another doctor also pointed out the consequences of the fantasy of future vindication coupled with the Nuremberg gambit:
I know the feeling. I’ve lost track of how many trolls have come at me with the “you’ll get what’s coming to you” and emails saying they can’t wait to see me tried for crimes against humanity. Again, this is nothing new, but it has gotten worse since the pandemic started.
I’m not alone, either. Just as antivaxxers have joined with COVID-19 minimizers, conspiracy theorists, antimaskers, anti-“lockdown” activists, and lab leak conspiracy theorists, so, too, have these other cranks started to imbibe the same old antivax fantasies of retribution and started applying them to their conspiracy theories. For instance, here’s an example from lab leak conspiracy theorists:
Dr. Rasmussen is correct. By their seemingly reasonable (or at least not entirely unreasonable or bonkers) calls for “accountability,” Drs. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff are, either knowingly or unwittingly, serving up dogwhistles that antivaxxers and conspiracy theorists recognize because they are very old antivax dog whistles demanding “investigations” and “tribunals” to bring “accountability” (in reality, retribution) to scientists. It’s somewhat plausible (albeit growing less so every time they say something like this) that Drs. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff are blissfully unaware of this subtext, but I find it implausible in the extreme that Jeffery Tucker and the political PR flacks at the Brownstone Institute are similarly ignorant of the implications behind this message.
In conclusion, there’s no doubt that both Mr. Tucker and Drs. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff, should they see this post, will strenuously deny that they want to execute scientists or that their statements in any way echo a “Nuremberg 2.0” narrative, and I’m not saying that I do. Moreover, I have little doubt that they believe themselves to be provaccine (not to mention oh-so-reasonable) and will automatically view construing anything they say as in any way echoing old antivaccine talking points as intellectually dishonest “guilt by association.” However, this not my first rodeo, as they say, and I’ve seen all this before. However much Mr. Tucker and Drs. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff might delude themselves otherwise, they are parroting old antivaccine narratives, and their call for “accountability” is not the first time they’ve done this.
There are only two possibilities. Either Drs. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff know that their calls for “accountability” are a watered down version of an old antivax trope that’s been sanitized, the better to provide them with plausible deniability, or they don’t. If they don’t, then they should take advantage of this education in order to learn about the history of the antivaccine movement and stop inadvertently parroting old antivaccine propaganda, just as they should stop using the argument that COVID-19 “doesn’t kill very many children” as a rationale for opposing vaccinating children, given that that is the very same bogus rationale that antivaxxers have long used to attack MMR and varicella vaccines.
Again, just as I wasn’t calling Drs. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff “antivaccine” but was instead trying to educate them that their argument that vaccinating children is inadvisable because COVID-19 “doesn’t kill healthy children” is the exactly SAME argument that antivaxxers have long used against MMR, varicella vaccine, etc., I’m not calling them “antivaccine” here, but trying to educate them that their calling for “accountability” is an obvious sanitized version of the antivaccine fantasy of future vindication (and revenge). Again, if Drs Bhattacharya and Kulldorff fail to learn and keep repeating old antivaccine tropes, then what am I supposed to conclude about them other than that either they are antivaccine or they are intentionally dog whistling to the antivaccine, anti-mask, and anti-public health ideologues? Neither is a good look for a scientist.
Remember, calls for “justice” and “accountability” echo an antivaccine fantasy about a time, sometime in the future, when they’ve been proven to have been absolutely correct all along and can now focus their attention on meting out retributive “justice” to their enemies. In its mildest form, this fantasy involves nothing worse than telling public health officials and doctors “I told you so” and shaming them into apologizing for their mistakes. In a somewhat more virulent form, this fantasy involves advocating prison for one’s perceived enemies in the public health and medical establishment. This sort of rhetoric is particularly frightening coming from someone like Dr. Paul Alexander, who was a high ranking science advisor at the Department of Health and Human Services under the Trump administration, who is now a regular contributor to the Brownstone Institute:
This sort of rhetoric is particularly frightening coming from someone like Dr. Alexander, who was a high ranking science advisor at the Department of Health and Human Services under the Trump administration.
In its most virulent form, which is becoming unfortunately more and more common today, this fantasy involves “justice”—really revenge—in the form of hangings and guillotines after a “Nuremberg 2.0” tribunal, as I documented with so many Tweets and quotes throughout this post.
The difference between past invocations of the fantasy of future vindication and tribunals is that these days, antivaxxers, antimaskers, and anti-“lockdowners” think that the day of reckoning has arrived. Drs. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff, as well as the Brownstone Institute flacks, should realize that they are playing with fire when they allude to “accountability” in such a vague fashion. They might not realize the dog whistles behind such calls and the potential for disaster, given the violent rhetoric of the antivaccine movement that has long included fantasies of violent retribution against vaccine advocates and doctors.
Finally, never forget this. Whenever antivaxxers call for “Nuremberg 2.0,” what they are really calling for is a new tribunal révolutionnaire. Whether Drs. Kulldorff and Bhattacharya realize it or not, when they make a similar call for “accountability,” they are echoing antivax calls for retribution, not justice, and thereby lending their previous scientific reputation to very dark rhetoric.