Pandemic skeptics are not the Taliban

And the end of the Afghan war with Americans left behind

Last week, I wrote about how several figures on the right were comparing vaccination and mask requirements to Jewish persecution in the Holocaust. This week, the roles have reversed as a prominent Democrat compared anti-maskers to the Taliban.

As you might expect, this shockingly bad take can be found on Twitter, specifically in Twitter feed of Arne Duncan. On Sunday, Duncan, who was Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, tweeted:

Aside from the obvious insult in comparing Americans to the Afghan religious extremist group, Mr. Duncan was just wrong on the first part of his point. I’m not aware of any anti-mask or anti-vaccine protesters who have blown anyone up at all, much less themselves.

Duncan’s third point is probably indisputable in terms of the American pandemic protesters, but I’m not so sure that the Taliban would say that they are fighting for freedom. The Taliban was fighting a foreign occupation and for control of their country against the government in place, but that doesn’t necessarily make them freedom fighters.

The Taliban is definitely not fighting for personal freedom. Far from it. They are fighting to impose strict Islamic law on the entire population of Afghanistan, which would bring the opposite of personal freedom to the average Afghan, particularly Afghan women.

Duncan’s second point is more contentious. Many of us would agree that both the Taliban and the pandemic protesters “inflict harm on those around them.” There is a difference in intent, however. The Taliban intentionally beats, rapes, and kills while most of the anti-mitigation crowd is blind to the fact that their actions are spreading a deadly disease.

Interestingly, the Washington Post reported that the real Taliban seems to take the pandemic threat seriously. Although COVID testing and vaccinations have plummeted in the weeks since the group assumed control of the country, there are indications that Afghanistan’s new rulers may cooperate with aid agencies to reduce the spread of the virus.

“Despite the Taliban’s history of disrupting public health and education efforts, the group has taken the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic seriously,” Roshni Kapur, a research analyst at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, wrote several months ago. “It has emphasized the provision of public health services as part of a wider effort to reduce the spread of the virus and number of fatalities.”

Given the Taliban’s treatment of women, there are concerns about the ability of Afghan women to access clinics. It may also be difficult for female healthcare workers to fulfill their roles under the new regime.

Aside from the factual problems with Duncan’s tweet, there is the problem of tone. Intentionally insulting the other side is not the best way to persuade. It didn’t work when Trump supporters accused me of being a closet liberal despite the fact that I retain my traditional Republican principles, even if I no longer call myself a Republican. It won’t persuade people who are skeptical about vaccines and masks either.

I admit that I have been very critical of the anti-mask and anti-vax movements. I do try to avoid personal attacks, however. I frequently tell these people that they are wrong in a blunt fashion and provide sources that contradict their beliefs, but I generally try to follow the Christian advice of speaking the truth in love.

Admittedly, that is hard to do sometimes. Yesterday, in conversations with a couple of anti-vaccine people on Twitter, I had one deny that the “current” Pfizer vaccine had actually been approved by the FDA. In this person’s mind, the FDA approved some future vaccine that does yet exist.

Then, a short while later, another Twitter user told me that he didn’t “believe anyone is dying of COVID.” He went on to explain that he believed that people on ventilators were dying of medical malpractice in the form of bad intubations that damaged airways and lungs. He went on to explain that he believes that hospitals do this to get federal money for treating COVID patients.

As the Man With No Eyes said in “Cool Hand Luke,” “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

It does seem to be true that, “Some men you just can’t reach.”

But that doesn’t mean that comparing them to the Taliban is beneficial. I’ve come to realize that you cannot penetrate the minds of conspiracy theorists with logic. It’s pointless to try. The best that you can do is put the truth out there so that people who stumble upon the conspiracy posts can at least see reality. Hopefully, real-world information will be a lifeline that helps them to avoid getting sucked into the rabbit hole of the conspiracy world.

There are some people who are not part of the tinfoil hat crowd who have legitimate questions and doubts about vaccines and masks, often based on all the bad information being disseminated on social media and by people like Tucker Carlson, who has waged a personal war against vaccines and masks. The key is to know who is reachable and who is not, because it is just a waste of time to engage with the true believers in the conspiracies.

I’ve found that you can generally tell by how your input is received. If someone is seriously looking for the truth, they’ll be grateful for real, legitimate information.

On the other hand, if someone is a conspiracy theorist, they treat real-world information as, for lack of a better term, fake news. Not only will conspiracy theorists ignore real data from legitimate sources, they will sometimes deny that it even exists.

This was the case with several people I engaged recently who refused to believe that there were studies in which the COVID-19 vaccines were tested in pregnant women. These studies are easy to find online, but many anti-vax conspiracy theorists won’t argue the results of the studies, they’ll deny that the studies exist, even when confronted with them.

Arguing with a conspiracy theorist is like walking in quicksand. If you address one objection, they shift the goalposts to a different topic. In the world of the conspiracists, the exceptions prove their rule and the easy way to avoid reality is to just keep assuming a larger conspiracy. For example, the vaccine conspiracy has grown to include the drug companies, government regulators, and now nearly every hospital worker in the world according to the person that I spoke with yesterday.

It might be impossible to reason with conspiracy mongers, but that still doesn’t make them the Taliban. The conspiracy theorists who knowingly push false narratives to scare people away from being vaccinated are bad people, but they are a different sort of bad people from the Taliban fighters who commit actual, real world atrocities. We should not conflate the two.

We should continue to educate the people who are legitimately concerned about the safety of COVID vaccines. The information campaigns won’t be helped by people like Arne Duncan who attack the skeptics. While straight talk is necessary, insults are not. This is the carrot side of the carrot-and-stick approach.

For the hardcore vaccine resisters, the stick means employer and school vaccination mandates as well as financial incentives like Delta Air Lines’ decision to pass along the cost of treating COVID-19 patients who are unvaccinated.

Even then, we have to accept the fact that some people will never get vaccinated. The goal should be to get vaccination levels high enough to avoid overwhelming hospitals and reduce the possibility of new and more dangerous virus mutations. If small numbers of people want to accept the risk of dying alone on a ventilator from COVID, that is their choice as long as these people are so few that they don’t wreak societal havoc.

In the end, there are at least some saving graces to the situation. At least, the Taliban comparison wasn’t made by a sitting member of Congress. And at least pandemic skeptics aren’t blowing anyone up.

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For better or worse, the US is out of Afghanistan.

As of this writing, it is uncertain exactly how many Americans didn’t make it out, but there is little doubt that many Afghan allies who didn’t want to live under Taliban rule were left behind. It was never going to be possible to take them all out, especially with the late start and congressional resistance. A bill to expedite visas for Afghan SIVs was passed by the House but still languishes in the Senate.

In a press conference yesterday, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, “We believe there are still a small number of Americans, under 200 and likely closer to 100, who remain in Afghanistan and want to leave. We’re trying to determine exactly how many.”

“The Taliban has committed to let anyone with proper documents leave the country in a safe and orderly manner,” Blinken said.

The Biden Administration says that it is committed to bringing home the remaining Americans diplomatically. It might have been much easier to insist that the last flight out would not depart until the Taliban provided safe passage to the airport for all Americans, however. The failure to bring everyone out will be a blot on President Biden’s legacy.

I’d like to take a moment to honor America’s Afghanistan veterans, including the 13 who died in the suicide bombing last week. Our failure in Afghanistan was not due to a lack of skill or courage of the brave men and women who represented America there.

If you served in Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else, I’d like for you to know that I appreciate your service as well as the sacrifices of those who didn’t come back or who came back less than whole.

I’m going to close with a picture that I saw last week after the ISIS-K attack on the airport. I hope this little boy made it out and I hope that he has the freedom to become an American soldier when he grows up, but I also hope that doesn’t have to.

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