The origin of evil is an issue that would seem as difficult to fathom as the meaning of life, or the purpose of the universe. It’s not. Evil is not simply when something bad happens. Hurricanes aren’t evil. Not even a disease is evil. Evil takes understanding. Evil is when someone displays indifference or experiences pleasure in the face of suffering.
The worst sort of evil comes when empathy and consideration are replaced with a perverse joy, one that doesn’t just refuse to acknowledge someone else’s pain, but takes pride in dismissing the thought that others deserve consideration. And it looks like this.
What’s happening in that Tennessee school board meeting is a tiny subset, a pixel in the larger picture, of what’s happening on multiple issues across the country. Another part of that greater image can be seen when CNN asked Dr. Anthony Fauci about a statement by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. And in the responses of a school superintendent from Mississippi.
As CNN reports, children too young to be vaccinated now make up 26% of all new cases of COVID-19 cases. That number has grown enormously as schools have reopened for in-person instruction in districts where masks are not mandated and vaccination for staff is not a requirement. In fact, the total number of children infected across the course of the pandemic has grown by 10% in just the last two weeks.
That’s because the reopening of schools, especially in areas where school boards have bowed to pressure—or the executive orders of Republican governors—and refused to institute mask mandates or vaccination requirements and are seeing an “explosions of cases.” That explosion generated over 14,000 cases among students in Florida within the first week of classes. It resulted in thousands of cases in Texas, where district after district has been forced to suspend classes.
Florida and Texas may have been grabbing the headlines thanks to the deeply twisted statements from Govs. Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, but they’re far from alone. In just four days in August, the Clarion Ledger reports that over 5,700 students tested positive in a single week, putting over 30,000—6.5% of the state’s total student population—into quarantine.
In this interview, Mississippi school superintendent John Strycker explains that he doesn’t require masks in his school, even after a teacher died. Strycker says, “I’m confident in what we’re doing.”
Strycker: I wept. Okay? It’s very hard on me. But when I’m making my decisions, I need to do the best I can to make non-emotional decisions.
Reporter: But your non-emotional decision is to do nothing.
Strycker then claims that the children in his care are “safe relative to the other schools.” In the first three week of school there, 6.4% of students have tested positive for COVID-19.
Following this interview, CNN moves to looking at the large Los Angeles unified school district where the superintendent has made very different decisions. At that school, every member of the staff is required to report their vaccination status and everyone—students, teachers, and visitors—is required to wear a mask. Over the same period, the infection rate in Los Angeles schools was 0.5%.
What’s become clear across the nation is simply this: School districts that do not have a mandatory mask policy are very likely to see a high incidence of COVID-19 cases within a period of a few weeks. Those levels are very likely to lead to that school district being forced to quarantine a substantial subset of its student and staff population, and almost as likely to result in classes being suspended for a period.
The reason is simple enough: As much as anti-mask forces want to make wearing a mask an emblem of personal fear, it’s not. The mask is simply societal responsibility. Masks reduce the rate of transmission of COVID-19, as well as other viruses, but they are really only highly effective if nearly everyone is wearing them. One person wearing a masks in a sea of bare faces gains very little, if anything, in the way of personal protection. If everyone is wearing masks, there is a large decrease in the spread of disease.
The same rule applies to vaccines. As NPR reports, DeSantis has repeatedly dismissed the role of vaccines as anything more than personal protection.
"At the end of the day though,” said the Florida governor, “it's about your health and whether you want that protection or not. It really doesn't impact me or anyone else."
And as Dr. Anthony Fauci has made clear, DeSantis is “completely incorrect.” Vaccines, like masks, do provide some protection to the individual, but their greater role is in breaking the chain of transmission. A high level of vaccination doesn’t just protect the vaccinated, it protects everyone. Whether someone has been vaccinated definitely affects those around them.
"When you're dealing with an outbreak of an infectious disease, it isn't only about you," said Fauci. "There's a societal responsibility that we all have."
And there’s that phrase again: societal responsibility—the need to take action that protects not just yourself or your family, but everyone in the greater society. What’s missing from every insistence that masks or vaccines are a “personal choice” is that these choices have an impact on others. Saying that masks or vaccines don’t affect anyone else is like saying that driving drunk doesn’t affect anyone else. Or firing a weapon through a loaded room doesn’t affect anyone else. These actions may not have an immediate impact, but there is a recognized societal responsibility that makes them illegal even if they don’t result in immediate loss.
What does evil look like? It looks like someone standing in front of a camera and saying that a decision that can cost the lives of thousands is a personal choice. It looks like that.
It also looks like these events at a charter school in Boise as reported by the Idaho Statesman.
At the beginning of the year, the board of the Peace Valley Charter School passed a mask mandate. But they rolled back that mandate after hearing from Dr. Ryan Cole—the same doctor who referred to COVID-19 vaccines as both “fake” and “needle rape.” Following that statement, Cole was made a member of Idaho’s Central District Health Board.
At a special meeting of the school board, Cole testified that masks didn’t work and that there was “not one study” showing that masks could help stop a viral disease. Cole also testified that masks “retain carbon dioxide” and can cause “inflammation in the brain.” None of these things has any basis in fact. (For reference, here’s a large study showing that masks work and here’s a broad review of the topic which confirms that effectiveness).
At that meeting, board members were also given a packet of documents, which included one titled “COVID-19 Masks Are a Crime Against Humanity and Child Abuse.” The board reversed its vote, eliminating the mask mandate.
What does evil look like? It looks like a woman snickering at a child talking about his dead grandmother. It looks like a doctor knowingly passing along false information that places children and teacher in danger. Most of all, it looks like a governor denying that individuals have any obligation beyond self preservation, and that pretending that societal responsibilities do not exist.
And as that Idaho school votes to drop mask mandates in response to disinformation …