Editorial: Anti-vaxxers can’t traffic in violent language then claim ignorance when someone gets hurt

Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), accompanied by concerned mothers and their children, speaks in February on his vaccine bill.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
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Perhaps the assault on state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) Wednesday by a professed anti-vaccination advocate was inevitable.

In the four years that the pediatrician-turned-politician has been working to raise the state’s flagging vaccination rates, he’s been the target of such fierce anger from anti-vaccination advocates that their rhetoric at times crossed the line from harsh into violent. Pan has received death threats and been heckled and cursed in committee meetings. He’s been compared to Adolf Hitler and Nazi doctor Josef Mengele at protests and rallies, where his face has been printed on T-shirts and signs covered with splattered blood. Opponents speak and tweet ominously about “war” and having their weapons ready to fight tyranny. They warn that Pan’s bills — SB 277 in 2015 and SB 276 currently pending before the state Legislature — will kill kids.

It’s absurd considering that what Pan is trying to do is keep children from contracting measles and other deadly diseases by stopping their misinformed parents from finding ways around the state’s mandatory public school vaccinations. Pan’s SB 277 ended exemptions from the mandate based on personal or religious beliefs after a measles outbreak at Disneyland in 2015 exposed a dangerous dip in the state’s rates of childhood vaccinations. And SB 276, which comes up for a crucial vote next week, would clamp down on exemptions granted for spurious medical reasons, which have been rising since the loss of other exemptions. Both of the bills are in the best interest of public safety because vaccinations are unquestionably safer than the diseases they protect against.


We’re grateful that this was a relatively mild incident. An agitated man by the name of Austin Bennett confronted Pan on camera as he walked down a Sacramento street and then, frustrated by Pan’s dismissal of his bizarre questions (“Would you drink aluminum?”), whacked the senator on the back of the head as Pan walked away.

Still, it underscores how dangerous it is for people on opposite sides of a debate to demonize one another. Pan is not evil or in the pocket of a crooked pharmaceutical company, just a doctor who can’t believe the willful ignorance of those who reject the solid science of vaccinations.

Maybe the anti-vaxxers don’t really mean to threaten Pan , but we’ve seen too many times how such irresponsible language can trigger a disordered mind. Bennett, who broadcast the encounter live on Facebook, prefaced it with a long, mostly incoherent soliloquy that touched on mind control, the CIA, Lucifer and the coming “end of days” that gave a disturbing picture of his mental state. Even if it was just a forceful shove from a seeming eccentric this time, what will it be next time?

The handful of organizations that have been lobbying against this bill immediately disavowed Bennett, saying he’s not one of them. Their statements painted Bennett as a “lone wolf,” possibly planted by the pharmaceutical industry hoping to make the anti-vaccination side look bad. As if it needed any help. Anti-vaxxers do the job quite well themselves by rejecting the overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe for almost everyone in favor of crackpot theories about an evil government colluding with avaricious pharmaceutical companies to hurt Americans — for reasons never quite made clear.

That’s baloney. The truth is that the anti-vaccination crowd, including such prominent names as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has been casually deploying violent language and imagery for years in its attacks on Pan. It’s disingenuous for these activists to spend years harassing Pan, painting him as an evil doctor who wants to hurt children, and then profess disbelief that someone acted on the messages. You can’t traffic in this type of loaded language and then claim you didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt. They need to own their role in this assault and tone down their opposition to SB 276 in the final weeks the bill is debated.