Momentous events in the life of a nation do not arrive because a people are ready for them. By all accounts, Americans weren’t ready when the Cuban Missile Crisis began, when General Santa Anna laid siege to the Alamo, or when Japanese planes first appeared over Pearl Harbor. Looking back on history, it is scarcely possible to grasp the confusion, uncertainty, and fear, if not outright terror, that previous generations of Americans experienced and suffered.
With the Fall of Corregidor, more than 11,000 of our troops were captured by the Japanese in a single day. Americans in every corner of the country heard the news and suffered under the threat of invasion and potential defeat at the hands of the Nazis and Japanese.
When facing such fears, Americans have at times forgotten that regard which they owe to their fellow man. Fear of a hated enemy has turned to fear of fellow Americans who resemble that enemy, or of those who appear to fall short in their dedication to an American victory. Laws have been passed making it a crime to teach the enemy’s language in school. Conscientious objectors have become objects of scorn and ridicule. Japanese-Americans and others have been fired from their jobs and marched off to internment camps by the hundreds of thousands, with the approval of the highest court in the land.
A friend recently remarked that COVID vaccination has already done more to divide Americans than any issue since the Civil War. Think about it. What other issue in America in the last 150 years has led doctors to abandon patients, employers to abandon workers, universities to abandon students, clergy to abandon parishioners, and left family members refusing even to speak with one another?
It has become the crisis of our generation.
Those in support of requiring COVID-19 vaccinations point back to a Supreme Court decision from more than a century ago to argue that mandatory vaccination is fully within the American tradition. That decision, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, upheld a $5 fine for refusal to take a smallpox vaccine. It was later used by the Supreme Court in the case Buck v. Bell to justify involuntary sterilization, which led to the government sterilizing 60,000 American women:
“The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”Buck v. Bell (1927)
Yes, this once reflected the position of the highest court in the land.
No, returning to the thinking of that time will not aid the United States in securing “the Blessings of Liberty” to future generations.
Years from now, we will look back on the course that Americans chose in 2021. There are some national sins of long ago whose victims are no longer with us. This will not be like that. Many of those we cast aside today will be with us for decades, and will bear the scars of their abandonment, as will we.
I recently received a message from a soldier I served with in Afghanistan:
“Sir, I realize there is only so much you can do … but I would be remiss if I didn’t pass on the concerns of myself as well as those of all of our brothers who find ourselves in this particular position. I and many of our Countrymen are in desperate need. We are about to lose our jobs for refusing the COVID vaccine. I am a DoD civilian employee, and we were given the warning today to get the shot or be reprimanded and terminated. I am currently recovering from COVID-19, so I have naturally acquired immunity. This coupled with the fact that serious side effects are more prevalent among those with prior infection makes me even less willing to get the vaccine. We served together, I freely gave 20 years of my life in service to our nation with the Army and have continued my service as a DoD civilian. My reward for over 30 years of service: get a vaccination for a disease I have already had (that may hurt me) or lose my job. I am at a loss, If I stand my ground I lose my job, and if the mandate holds, no one will hire me. Then what? I am a man. I want to support and protect my family – that’s my job. I can’t do either if I take an experimental vaccine and die. It should be an individual choice. There are countless people like us in Alaska and all over the nation. I have emailed every elected official I can. Sir you have the platform to make our voices heard, you can help. Please take our message to the government and stop this before it’s too late.”
Years from now, how will we talk about those whose jobs were taken? When they cross our path, will we acknowledge the tragedy that we, in our time of great fear, allowed to be visited upon them? Or will we pass them in silence and pretend we didn’t see?
What will we say to the man who, gripped in fear, would rather die than take a vaccine, and — being unable to transcend that fear — was forced to forfeit his career and his livelihood? What will we say to his children?
What will we say to the ethics professor who was fired for concluding that her university’s mandatory vaccination policy was unethical and that she could not, in good conscience, consent to it?
What will we say to the nurse who, after helping treat COVID patients, was cast aside when her commitment against coercion and bullying would not allow her to be coerced into taking a vaccine?
What will we say to the freshman student who was forced to forfeit a $200,000 scholarship when the risk of paralysis prevented her from taking a vaccine?
What will we say to doctors and students forced out of medical school because conscience would not allow them to take a vaccine that had been developed using the cells of an aborted child? (Note: All COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the U.S. relied upon the use of one or more aborted fetal cell lines during product development and/or testing.)
And what of the student who relents in order to graduate from medical school, or the employee who relents in order to feed her family, but is then tormented for having betrayed her conscience?
What will we say to the daughter whose healthy, 37-year old mother initially refused to take the vaccine, but was told that she had to in order to volunteer in her daughter’s preschool class, and who died a week after taking the vaccine? Words fail us.
What will we say to the doctors who treated those patients, and were later punished for attempting to speak out?
What will we say to the survivors of those who were denied medical treatment or organ transplants as punishment for not taking the vaccine? It was to protect extremely vulnerable patients like these that many Americans initially agreed to become vaccinated in the first place.
What will we say to those Americans unwilling to take the vaccine after watching a friend or loved one take it and become gravely injured or not survive?
What will we say to the doctors who treated those patients, and were later punished for attempting to speak out?
At the outbreak of World War II, Americans were asked not only to buy war bonds, but also to abandon thousands of their friends and neighbors of Japanese ancestry to the internment camps. They were told that it was necessary for the war effort. Despite some protests, they did.
Under government order, Americans watched as more than 130,000 people were forced from their jobs and confined in camps. Ten months after the war ended, the president issued an executive order that allowed them to return to their homes, many of which had already been sold for “failure to pay taxes“. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the president and a critic of the internments, would later say, “These people were not convicted of any crime, but emotions ran too high…” It was a chapter in American history in which our fear was allowed to drive a wedge between us.
Fred Korematsu was the American who refused to consent to losing his job and being sent to an internment camp at the outbreak of the war. The Supreme Court case that sanctioned Japanese-American internment, Korematsu v. U.S., bears his name. Writing to the Supreme Court in 2005, he cautioned: “…history teaches that we tend to sacrifice civil liberties too quickly based on claims of military necessity and national security, only to discover later that those claims were overstated from the start.”
FIRST THEY CAME…
My first introduction to Martin Niemöller’s famous recitation “First They Came” was in junior high. It begins: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist…” In different audiences and at different times the author adjusted the words of the various verses, but the final verse always remained the same: “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”
As a teen, I took the author to be initially apathetic about the plight of the socialists and the others he mentioned, including the Jews. I utterly failed to grasp the fear behind his words. To speak out on behalf of someone targeted by the state was to make yourself a target of the state; to be treated no better than the Jews, or any of the various groups being targeted by the German government. In the 1930’s, one did not make the decision to speak out lightly. There would be a cost. For many, it would be a death sentence.
Though he did eventually speak out, and was sent to a concentration camp himself, he was too late. Niemöller went on to articulate for many the regret of having abandoned Jews he knew in the early years of the war. In meeting them later in life, he would say to each, “Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we cannot get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people has sinned against thy people and against thyself.” Where I first heard self-pity in Niemöller’s closing “there was no one left to speak for me.” I now hear the profound regret of a man who abandoned friends out of fear; friends who were no longer present to speak up for him when the time came.
In 1943, at the height of German occupation, the people of Norway did a courageous thing in refusing to abandon one of their own. Lieutenant Jan Baalsrud, an injured Norwegian soldier marked for execution, was the target of an extensive and prolonged German manhunt. For more than two months, Baalsrud was passed from house to house and cave to cave by the people of Norway, each of whom risked death for helping him. The story was recently memorialized in the movie The 12th Man. In an especially poignant scene, one of Baalsrud’s saviors is asked why she is about to risk death for a man dying of gangrene? She responds: “This is how we prove who we are and what we believe in.” Baalsrud’s survival, after narrowly escaping capture and death many times, will forever serve as a testament to the people of Norway, who refused to abandon a critically-injured soldier when the stakes were at their highest.
If both vaccinated and unvaccinated refuse to be classified, any system designed to produce disparate treatment becomes unworkable…
TREAT ME LIKE MY UNVACCINATED NEIGHBOR
The mistreatment of Americans who have not taken a COVID-19 vaccine is now a matter of official government policy, sanctioned by the White House. Perhaps that mistreatment will eventually be sanctioned by the Supreme Court years from now, as it was in Fred Korematsu’s case. But a future Supreme Court decision, even one that acknowledges and condemns that mistreatment, will do little to remove the national disgrace that is ours if we abandon the unvaccinated today. As a free society, we are not at liberty to simply defer to whatever policy or mandate comes out of the White House, or even the Supreme Court Building. Further, it is unwise to rely on judges, even those at the Supreme Court, to alone bear the brunt of ending unjust national policies that enjoy the support or acquiescence of the other two branches of government.
Yes, mistreatment of the unvaccinated should be protested. But protests alone were not enough to save Japanese-Americans from internment camps, and they will likely not be enough to avert the tragedy now before us. In 1943, scores of Norwegians declared by their actions that they were willing to risk the same death sentence that had already been passed on their injured soldier. If we are to avert this national disgrace, as Americans, we must be willing to risk suffering alongside the unvaccinated in order that this injustice may be brought to an end. There are times when we “are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, but to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself.” The current crisis hardly offers any alternative.
To speak out on behalf of the unvaccinated will mean a willingness to risk the same treatment that our unvaccinated neighbors are currently experiencing, with the knowledge that such treatment may grow worse still. Speaking out need not be an invitation to abuse or acceptance of such abuse, but rather born of a conviction that if abuse does come, my unvaccinated neighbor should not be left to bear the weight of that abuse alone.
ALASKA WATCHMAN DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX
It is precisely the move to separate Americans into classifications; those who will receive protection under the law, and those for whom that same protection will be denied, that enables the systematic abuses that follow after. If both vaccinated and unvaccinated refuse to be classified, any system designed to produce disparate treatment becomes unworkable, as was seen in Moscow this past summer.
In June, Moscow prohibited the unvaccinated from entering restaurants, cafes, and other public places. Three weeks later, after the people of Moscow largely refused to be classified, the City of Moscow cancelled its vaccine passport program entirely. This is one reason why some who have been vaccinated refuse to show proof of it and also refuse to apply for an exemption.
Though it will likely come at a cost today, many of us have not yet lost the opportunity to speak up for the unvaccinated, to seek justice for them, and to seek an end to the abuses that have already taken place. Let us take that opportunity, lest we come to personally know the guilt and profound regret of Martin Niemöller and so many of his generation who did not speak up when they could have done so.
The views expressed here are those of the author.