Fourteen years ago, I attended an event at an embassy in Manhattan, where I used to live. Having listened to a panel of diplomats discuss the most important international issues of the day, I was invited to ask a question from the floor.
I asked, “Should a state be held responsible for the intended consequences of its actions or for the predictable consequences of its actions?” A Scandinavian ambassador to the United Nations answered me thus: “Nobody predicted that the Iraq War would turn out as it did.”
I had not mentioned the Iraq War in my question, but the ambassador was quite right that it had motivated my question as it had become clear both that Iraq did not have useable weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), as had been falsely claimed by the USA to justify the war, and that American bombing had killed hundreds of thousands of non-combatant Iraqis.
I had previously protested against that war because I had listened to Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN Security Council that was made supposedly to demonstrate Saddam Hussein’s intention and ability to use all of those WMDs. His presentation comprised little more than a few drawings, photographs and assertions without evidence.
I did not have to be a diplomat or an intelligence agent to see that the Americans did not have casus belli because if they did, Powell would have presented the evidence when he had the chance.
Of course, I wasn’t the only person to work that out: millions of people around the world marched in the hope of preventing the second war in Iraq. Indeed, the only groups of people who seemed generally convinced by Powell’s presentation were Western political elites and many (but by no means all) Americans.
The answer that the Scandinavian ambassador gave to my question was simply false.
Not only were Iraq’s lack of useable weapons of mass destruction and the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people predictable: they had been predicted. The predictions had been made by thousands of us all over the world and were based on the information (or lack of it) available at the time.
Claims of “insufficient information” and “it was an honest mistake, guv’nor” are always made by those responsible for policies that do massive harm in the name of protecting people from greater harm, when it finally becomes obvious to everyone that their “preventative treatment” was much worse than the “disease” of which anyone was at risk.
Contrary to the ambassador’s answer, the people with the power to harm ignored the predictions and the evidence on which they were based because they contradicted an argument they had already settled on for a policy they had already decided to pursue.
Those who went to war in Iraq under false pretenses do not get a pass for having made an honest mistake – because they did not make one. They made a willful mistake (or no mistake at all), and they manipulated information to deceive the public in whose name they acted.
One of the most well-worn quotations in political articles written by people who get hot under the collar about human rights is due to CS Lewis:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive… [T]hose who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” And, based on our experience of the COVID pandemic, we might add, “… and even the consciences of those they tyrannize.”
Over the last three years or so, not only did most Americans accept the elimination of their most basic rights, many of them aided and abetted the same by their fear-driven participation, in word, deed or both, of the marginalization of those who resisted.
Arguably, the relationship between the average American citizen and State now differs in no fundamental way from that between the average Chinese citizen and State. Any difference that may exist in degree (since none exists in kind) between the two is precariously maintained only by historical luck – not by any principles of liberty or proportionality presently cleaved to in the Western world.
China’s COVID policies are simply more robust, complete, and consistently applied versions of those that were argued for and attempted by American politicians and supported by most of the American public – and they were justified by exactly the same arguments that were used in the USA.
How do American leaders feel as they watch in China the human consequences of their advocated approach implemented fully by those with power that they only wished they had?
We do not know, of course, because no one is asking them that question. Our corporate mainstream media have little interest in it – almost certainly because they provided the platforms for, and magnified the voices of, those who argued for such an approach. Perhaps our media are reluctant to revisit the matter because they are ever so slightly ashamed. I jest, of course: they have no shame.
Is the suggestion of equivalence between Chinese and American COVID-justified mandates mere hyperbole? After all, unlike the Chinese lockdown, the American one did not involve welding closed the front doors of people who consequently died in burning buildings.
Thankfully, it did not – but the evidence suggests that this was more because of the trajectory of the pandemic than any difference in morality, principles, or attitude to power. Indeed, the evils that have been committed against Westerners in the name of COVID fell short of those committed against Chinese not as a result of the intentions of our political and cultural elites – but in spite of them.
Centers of power in the West, just like those in China, demonstrated a willingness to do great harm, and in some cases fatal harm, in the name of protecting people from COVID, and to do so indefinitely. Not only did they articulate no upper limit on the harm they were willing to do, on the rights they were willing to violate, or on the period for which they were willing to violate those rights: they actively engaged in a propaganda campaign to suppress information that might lead to demands that they stop.
Like those of the Iraq War, the harmful consequences of the most egregious anti-COVID policies were predicted from the beginning. Despite that, Western governments showed no interest in conducting an adequate human cost-benefit analysis before implementing their policies. Despite that, they abrogated basic rights without due process.
Despite that, agencies, institutions, Big Tech and Big Pharma censored information and opinion that questioned the foregoing. Despite that, tens of millions of Americans attacked not those agencies, institutions and corporations for stifling discussion but, rather, their friends and neighbors who insisted on the importance of such discussion.
As a result, we’ve learned what Westerners will do to avoid the cognitive dissonance from which they might otherwise have suffered as they shamefully accepted back as privileges under government-set conditions rights that had been taken away from those who refused to be complicit.
The harmful consequences of the pandemic-era policies that all of the lockdown and the experimental vaccination they were used to compel people to take are now coming to light. To remind ourselves of some of the most egregious of those:
- The social and educational development of young children was impaired with potentially lifelong consequences in some cases,
- Family livelihoods were destroyed as people were fired from their jobs for exercising bodily autonomy,
- People were excluded from public life and places without showing documentation proving compliance with a government mandate,
- Family members were prevented from meeting at times of medical, physical or emotional need,
- Small businesses were prevented from operating,
- Mentally and emotionally vulnerable people were forced into situations that exacerbated their conditions – sometimes fatally,
- People at risk of domestic violence were inhibited from protecting themselves,
- People who were due justice were inhibited from receiving it,
- The State and large corporations collaborated in a campaign of censorship to suppress information that might motivate resistance; an unclean class of people was identified and stigmatized, and the State in direct collaboration with Big Tech supported their social vilification, ostracization and economic exclusion;
- The moral (and Constitutional) requirement that state-sponsored coercion be justified at least in terms of public health or welfare was forgotten as coercive policies were maintained even as their justifications were repeatedly disproved and replaced with new ones made up ad hoc for the purpose;
- Medical treatment was forced upon citizens absent long-term testing.
We in the West didn’t do that last one, did we?
We weren’t holding people down to stick needles in them, were we? We weren’t really forcing people, were we?
We’re not really like China, are we?
Yes, we are.
Compulsion, like any physical force, has degrees – and the difference between the Chinese and Western forms of compulsion in response to COVID differed in degree – not in kind or in principle.
To be compelled to do something is to be harmed or threatened with harm for non-compliance. There is no difference of principle between doing a great harm to someone who does not comply and doing a smaller harm to her while maintaining the credible threat of doing a greater harm for non-compliance in the near future.
Since compelling people for an extending period is tough work because they tend to resist actions that hurt them, political compulsion is invariably accompanied by propaganda designed to elicit more willing compliance. In that, Chinese power and Western power do not operate differently because they are in different countries: rather they behave identically because power is power. While China has (arguably) traveled further down this road than we have, we’re clearly on the same road and going in the same direction.
A denial of moral equivalence between the view of a Western supporter of lockdown and that of the Chinese Communist Party official would seem to depend on the ability of the former to offer a principle that limits the scope of application of all of the justifications that he has already used to trample rights in the name of COVID.
Such a principle would have somehow to explain that, whereas the lockdown supporter is prepared to harm the development of children, the health of families and the lives of those who have reacted adversely to an experimental immunization (about which we are only now finding out the details but was to be expected in the absence of long-term testing) or suffered from exacerbated mental illness, it nevertheless imposes a strict upper limit on that harm.
Not once was such a principle articulated by those who coerced and compelled during the pandemic.
Even if it could be articulated, any lockdown supporter who attempted to do so has an overwhelming problem of credibility: there is no reason to believe him unless his newly found limiting principle is consistent with – or at least does not entirely fly in the face of – his past behaviors and stated priorities.
So let us examine the behaviors and priorities that characterized lockdown and coerced experimental immunization. They include a demonstrated willingness to risk unquantified harms to people, a lack of interest in specifying any upper limit to that harm, the justification of policy using highly selected, sometimes false information, the ad hoc changing of those justifications when they have been proved false, a lack of capacity or willingness (or both) to check for himself the accuracy of said information, a refusal to carry the burden of proof when harming others by accurately quantifying, let alone demonstrating, the prevention of greater harms, and the censorship of persons who question any of it.
Even if it were true that Western leaders would never go to the lengths that the Chinese Communist Party is prepared to go in response to a low-fatality pandemic, neither they nor we can possibly know that or trust it. A person who has already demonstrated himself willing to mistreat another because of a belief that turns that person’s very existence into a perceived threat (as the Nazis did with the Jews and our officials did with the “unvaccinated”) is a person who does not know his limits because he has already violated the limits that he previously claimed to believe in.
If, in the Before Times, the average American had been asked whether she would ever support closing down businesses, firing employees, shutting down schools, implementing one-way lanes in super-markets, mass censorship, the repeated changing of medical definitions by government agencies, closing the borders to people who’ve not had an experimental immunization (even if they have antibodies against the disease targeted by the immunization), the criminalizing of weddings, funerals, and visits to dying relatives etc. etc., to “protect” against a disease that was at no time believed to have a fatality rate of greater than 0.1% except in an identified vulnerable sub-population that could otherwise have been protected, she would have responded with a loud “NO,” and been horrified even by the suggestion.
Evidently, millions of such Americans changed their views entirely when they were scared enough and sufficiently incentivized.
As during the Iraq War, so during the COVID pandemic: as long as you are insufficiently committed to basic principles of human rights and trust the information provided by those who wish to violate them, you will comply with and thereby enable tyranny. Consider the widespread acceptance of the Patriot Act and unConstitutional mass surveillance following 9/11: they are something else we have in common with the Chinese.
It keeps happening. It’s the pattern. It’s what they do. And it’s what most Americans help them do when, under government-set conditions (“take your medicine that has not undergone long-term testing and provides immunity only to its manufacturers”), we accept back as privileges (to work, to go out, to travel etc.) what are, and always shall be, rights.
What do the backtracking lockdowners and experimental immunization-mandaters say now, when they say anything at all – as evidence of the predicted, awful consequences of their impositions mounts higher and higher?
The best argument they have – perhaps the only one – is a defense from ignorance of the kind the Scandinavian diplomat tried on me in Manhattan. Their claim is that we should forgive and forget because they didn’t know – because none of us knew- what situation we were really in. We were all working with limited information, they remind us.
Damned right we were.
But if the available information was too little for us to hold our leaders accountable for the harm that they did to us, then it was too little to justify their inflicting that harm in the first place.
Reasonable people can certainly imagine an exceptional situation that demands careful consideration of competing views about a potential threat, advanced from various perspectives by variously motivated interests, and ultimately a decision that an abundance of caution supports proportionate coercive regulations. But that is not what happened as the COVID virus hit.
Rather, from the very beginning of the pandemic, plenty of commentators – many renowned in relevant fields – called out the justificatory gap between the available data on COVID and the policies that were being implemented. They offered policy solutions that better fitted the data while respecting human rights. They pointed out biases that were leading us to systematic and dangerous errors in responding to COVID. They highlighted the need for serious cost-benefit analyses.
But the people who were responsible for the setting and implementation of lockdown policies were interested in none of that. On the contrary, officials, agencies, and corporate collaborators actively worked to ensure that their populations would not be exposed to – or at least would not take seriously – any of it, lest a more complete perspective would motivate resistance.
That is why the lockdowners and coercive immunizers who wish now to plead an innocent combination of ignorance and good intention as a reason for the rest of us to dismiss the moral and legal case against them forfeited that defense long ago.
A person can plead ignorance as a defense when he has acted in good faith but not when he has gone out of his way to ignore and hide the information that it is the basic duty of her office to consider.
In any domain outside politics, a person who does harm as the result of a failure to meet the inherent requirements and expectations of his professional role is guilty of criminal negligence and of all of the specific harms that were caused as a direct result thereof.
The most basic duty of policy-makers is the honest consideration of all reasonably available information that bears on the consequences of their actions – and in so doing, to take care in some proportion to the potential (let alone, the predicted) magnitude of the consequences of those actions. It is the duty of due diligence. Almost all American officials were derelict in that duty.
The COVID virus was as incapable of mass destruction as was Saddam Hussein. Those who went to war against the former are as irresponsible, should be held as accountable, and have done as much harm, as those who went to war against the latter.
In both cases, the harms were sold to the public as necessitated by an urgent need to protect us from greater imminent harms.
In both cases, the insufficiency of the evidence was clear to those with eyes to read the evidence and ears to listen to the sales pitches.
In both cases, those in power deceived themselves and others because they knew that they could not otherwise have gotten away with the harms they were inflicting.
We all make mistakes. But politicians’ mistakes are deadlier even than doctors’. At the very least, then, let us not allow our leaders and their agents to remain the only class of professionals immune to accountability for the willful failure to do the same duty of care that they used to justify the harm that they did to so many people and the rights-based Rule of Law.