Trying to understand vigilantes. Failing.

Amber Elliott, currently director of the St. Francois County public health department in Missouri, resigns today, November 20.  She and her family are being harassed by angry citizens.

Kelly Vollmar is director of the Jefferson County Health Department and has faced the same kinds of abuse. [1]

I want to think about the case that is being made by the citizens who are doing the harassing and why they think this case justifies such actions.

That’s the topic.  But I really can’t just go to that question; there is really no way to simply ignore what these neighbors have been doing.  Here is a selection.

Ellott:

“There’s been many over the course of eight months, to personal attacks on Facebook calling me every name in the book, to calling me and cussing me and saying I’m stupid and I’m incompetent and I don’t know what I’m doing, of course the pandemic is fake, and all those type of things,” Elliott said.

People told her they were following her, that they were watching her. They took pictures of her, her husband and her two elementary school-age children in public and posted them online with remarks she doesn’t want to repeat.

Vollmar:

Vollmar said she has experienced harassment being a director as well. As a domestic violence survivor, she had worked to keep the location of her home private, but people searched her tax records, divorce records, committees she’s served on and posted information online to determine where she lived, she said.

A gun shop owner in the county uses his Facebook page to attack her credibility, warning that gun owners will “decide they’ve had enough of the lies.” Someone, she said, called her husband saying she was out with another man. People posted pictures of her on social media, altered to make her look like Adolf Hitler or comparing the health department to Nazis.

I am reminded very much of the use of the stocks as a public shaming device.  Some official body, church or town or both, decided that someone was guilty of something and put them of display so they could be ridiculed by their neighbors.  That always sounded really awful to me.  Consider, however, that these cases in Missouri are instances where anyone can put anyone else in the stocks for their public humiliation without any decision having been reached by any public body at all.

Really?

The first point I want to focus on is the allegation that the whole “pandemic thing” is fake.  “Of course the pandemic is fake” is the way Elliott puts the charge against her.  Some subset of an angry citizenry (gun owners) will decide when they have had “enough of the lies” in Vollmar’s case.

Is this possible?  My first instinct is to say that it is not possible.  I have no doubt that the statements that are being reported have actually been made, but could they have been made because they were instrumentally necessary rather than because they were truly believed.  I say what I need to say, in other words, but I don’t necessarily believe it.

In the world I live in, there is a lot of evidence for the reality of the pandemic.  I could read the news or watch TV.  I could go to the city health department.  I could go to the hospitals to verify that the beds are full of COVID patients. [2]  I could talk to my neighbors who are having first hand experience with hospitalization.  The people who are making these charges don’t live in that kind of world.

I’ve been told that there are mental disorders, paranoia, for instance, where the whole world seems untrustworthy and hostile.  There are treatments for paranoia but these treatments come one patient at a time.  What if the issue comes in cascades of angry and mutually reinforcing neighbors, all of whom share the same paranoid vision and all of whom justify the most vicious treatment of public officials?  What kind of treatment is there for that?

It is easy—facile, really—to blame President Trump for this, but he has never, so far as I have heard [3] said that there was no pandemic.  I have heard him say it will be light and transient; that it is an attack by China; that public gatherings are perfectly acceptable; and that it will soon be over in any case.  I think the President can be fairly charged with popularizing the “it’s all fake” culture, but that culture also preceded him and there are other reasons why people maintain that particular delusion.

I could say that these angry people have a goal in mind—harassing public officials, say—and are willing to say they believe anything that superficially justifies the things they want to do in any case.  There is, in fact, an online community somewhere that celebrated the ingenuity of the person who located Kelly Vollmar’s house by searching the tax records.  That person was duly celebrated by their peers.  There are lots of rewards for doing things like this over and above actually believing it to be true.

Still, I think they do believe it.  Presuppositions that you use for awhile because they are efficient tend to slide, eventually, into beliefs you consciously hold.  It’s just easier.

The second question these events raise in my mind is the actions that the beliefs justify.  If there are people who have been hired to direct a program aimed at “protecting the public” (that’s what their employers told them to do), what actions against them are justified?  How about a letter to the editor?  How about appearing at a public hearing sponsored by the Health Department where you could assemble in order to seek a redress of your grievances? How about a gathering outside the office where she works?  Peaceful, of course.

These are, by the standards of American politics, pretty aggressive, but they all treat the person as an officeholder.  These tactics, direct as they are, move deliberately past the roles of mother, wife, private citizen, member of the community, and member of a local church and attack the person as a person.

This person—take the case of Amber Elliott—is not any of those things for the present purpose.  She is a tyrant, intent on taking away our liberties and maximum pressure needs to be brought against her.  The only questions being asked here are tactical questions: what would cause the most pain?

This stripping away of all the roles could properly be called “dehumanization.”  Ms. Elliott is s tyrant RATHER THAN a mother, a wife, etc.  Everything about her is irrelevant; only this one part of her life is relevant.  She says that what she is doing has a vital public purpose, but we don’t care about the purpose—we care only about the means.  She says things like “flatten the curve;” we say things like “To hell with your mask mandate.”  You say things like, “The law requires…”  We say things like, “We will find you and punish you until you stop.”

It is common to strip away from intended victims all the aspects of their life that would allow members of your movement to have some identification with them or some sympathy.  Sometimes names like cockroaches” (Rwanda) or “rats” (Nazi Germany) are used.

So of the people who are harassing Ms. Elliott and Ms. Vallmar, we may say two things.  The first is that they believe in the legitimacy of the charges they are bringing.  They believe they are factually accurate (there is really no pandemic) and morally urgent (our rights are being taken away).

The second thing is that they are within their rights to act as vigilantes.  They have the right to persecute “tyrants” to “take away our freedoms.”  It might be seen as a duty.  It is certainly a praiseworthy action within their primary communities, which are probably mostly online.

What to do

I’m not really sure.  No one forces these people to assemble together and hatch conspiracy theories.  They do it because they want to.  There is no available force to oppose the vigilantes, particularly when so much of the harassment is conducted online.  This is not a police problem.  This is a little cells of fanatics problem.

The two formal solutions are to put these people in touch with the world of publicly confirmed facts, and to prevent them from acting, outside the law, on the delusions they hold in common.  Those two.  I don’t know how to do either of them.

[1]  See the article by Michelle Munz in the St. Louis Post Dispatch for October 30, 2020

[2]  I wouldn’t get any further than the information desk or the public relations department.  I might not get any further than the security officers.

[3]  I might have fallen a tweet or so behind.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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