Are Anti-Vaxxers Violent Extremists?

Or is this the latest smear tactic?

The narrative spinners have been hard at work for a long time now making it socially acceptable to demonize and spew hatred at those who are skeptical about vaccines. It has been an extremely effective effort. Just search the news for stories about “anti-vaxxers” (how many other groups can be referred to in major news outlets by derogatory and inflammatory epithets?) and you will find countless examples of unrestrained scorn and abuse, from the mocking of sick children to online comments wishing illness and death on other people’s families.

Now, the strategy seems to be shifting. The past year has seen an uptick in language in the media that equates the questioning of vaccine safety with violence and even terrorism. British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, for example, said in May:

‘Those who have promoted the anti-vaccination myth are morally reprehensible, deeply irresponsible and have blood on their hands.’

Last week, this narrative got a boost when California Senator Richard Pan (the author of two controversial vaccine-mandate bills, and heavily funded by pharmaceutical and other healthcare industry interests) was “assaulted” by a man who claims to be an anti-vaccine activist. The man, Austin Bennett, shoved Pan in the back after talking to him on the street, and was later cited for a misdemeanor. Dissolving Illusions: ... Bystrianyk, Roman Best Price: $38.50 Buy New $21.60 (as of 11:00 UTC - Details)

The act raised suspicion among those opposed to vaccine mandates, and long-time activists immediately denounced Bennett as “unhinged” and condemned any form of violence. Senator Pan, though, was quick to jump on the opportunity to smear all of those who are critical of vaccines as violent. The morning after the incident, his communications director, Shannan Velayas, introduced a new hashtag on Twitter: #StopAntiVaxViolence.

That same day, Pan issued a press release in which he stated:

“Yesterday’s assault was incited by violent rhetoric and imagery employed by anti-vaccine extremists.  Anti-vaxxers have attempted to dehumanize me and other public health advocates on social media while making death threats. When rallying here at the Capitol, they displayed posters and wore shirts with my face splattered with blood. …Mr. Bennett is not a lone actor, but a person who accepted the violent rhetoric of the anti-vax movement…”

In fact, the image to which Pan refers does not show his face splattered with blood, but the word “LIAR” stamped across his face. You can see that here and here.

Velayas has also posted images of bricks sent to legislators by those opposed to Pan’s SB276, which will make medical exemptions for vaccines subject to state approval. Velayas characterized the bricks as “violent imagery”—when in fact they were intended to represent the “wall” that SB276 would build between patients and their doctors.

But Senator Pan and his communication director already know that. They also know that the activists who genuinely oppose Pan’s attempts to mandate vaccines for all children (and very likely, for adults too) are anything but violent.

The mainstream press likes to portray those who question the official line on vaccines as nothing more than a bunch of ignorant, selfish parents—mostly moms—who’ve seen one too many interviews with Jenny McCarthy and have decided for no other reason to abstain from doing what every educated, right-thinking person knows is best.

The only thing that caricature gets right is the part about them being mostly moms. They are, overwhelmingly, mothers. Mothers of children who they believe have been badly injured or in some cases killed, by vaccines. As so many of them point out, a more accurate title than “anti-vaxxer” would be “ex-vaxxer.” The vast majority of anti-vaccine activists are those who did vaccinate their children and now regret it.

I’m honestly surprised that they aren’t violent. If my child had died after receiving vaccines, or had suddenly regressed, become unable to speak or walk or function normally, I don’t think I’d be able to do what these moms do. I don’t think I’d be able to travel for hours or days, to stand in line for more hours, in order to deliver testimony against a bill aimed at forcing vaccines on children against the wishes of their parents, only to be barked at and showered with abuse by arrogant politicians.

To see just how “violent” these activists are, watch some of the video footage of their testimony against California’s SB277 in 2015, or against SB276 this year. Here’s what you will see: Hundreds and hundreds of parents, standing patiently in line for hours, sometimes in unrelenting heat, following all the rules, no matter how arbitrary, and then when their turn comes to speak the few words they are allowed, doing so in a calm and respectful manner to a group of politicians who demonstrate no respect for them. Jabbed: How the Vaccin... Wilcox, Brett Buy New $19.99 (as of 02:10 UTC - Details)

The audacity required to twist that reality into a self-serving fantasy of violent extremism is nothing short of breathtaking. There is a reason anti-mandate activists have chosen that particular word to stamp across the senator’s face on their posters and t-shirts.

And there is a deep, deep, irony in the feigned pacifism of a politician who seeks to use the power of the state to force a medical procedure on children against the wishes of their parents. Those who wield state violence like to pretend that it is somehow benign, that it is not violence at all. But anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of it knows better.

We will likely never know whether the Shoving of Pan was a genuine assault, or a staged event. But one thing we do know is that those who rely on actual violence to get what they want from others will always make every effort to portray the victims of their violence as the aggressors. The use of agents provocateurs, and the staging of incidents that can be used to justify violent crackdowns and the violation of basic rights, are among the oldest tricks in the authoritarians’ handbook. If this latest incident was indeed such an event, it is unlikely to be the last.