“Burn in Hell.”
“We’re coming for you.”
Those are just some of the messages that 69-year-old grandmother and retired teacher Joyce Warshaw has received over the past few days.
That’s all because, as mayor of Dodge City, Kansas — a city of just over 27,000 steeped in Wild West frontier history — she eventually supported a local mask mandate to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Warshaw, a Republican, resigned this week after she said she started receiving death threats and harassing messages for her city commission vote in November, a vote she says she doesn’t regret.
“Life has dealt out many challenges in our world that have perhaps caused many people to act inappropriately,” she wrote in her resignation letter, “but I do not feel safe in this position anymore and am hopeful in removing myself this anger, accusations and abuse will not fall on anyone else and will calm down.”
The impulse is understandable. Few jobs are worth risking the safety of one’s own family.
But the idea that giving into vigilantism will end vigilantism is, sadly, wishful thinking. In fact, it’s fairly clear that these attacks on public health officials have had the intended effect: scaring and intimidating people, mostly women, out of office.
In California in June, Orange County health director Dr. Nichole Quick resigned after receiving personal threats in a public meeting, including a banner depicting her as a Nazi. At the time, she became the seventh senior health official to resign in the state since the beginning of the pandemic.
In Ohio, Amy Acton, the state’s health director, resigned in the wake of anti-Semitic attacks and armed protesters on her front lawn.
In Missouri, St. Francois County health director Amber Elliott resigned in November after threats that she was being watched and pictures of her husband and children getting posted online with disturbing comments. Kelley Vollmar, director of the Jefferson County Health Department, says she too has faced attacks, being likened to Hitler and threatened by a gun shop owner on Facebook who wrote that gun owners will “decide they’ve had enough of the lies.”
The trend predominantly seems to be targeting — but isn’t limited to — women in public health roles. A 69-year-old grandmother, a mother of two young kids, a doctor and mother of three, to name just a few. Misogynistic language is typical. Many have been stalked. Attacks on young children is, disturbingly, a line some are willing to cross to make their point.
Scaring these women out of their jobs, just for doing them, is detestable and chilling.
It’s not surprising women are more frequent targets. A 2018 study of 283 U.S. mayors found women were subjected to forms of harassment and violence more often than men. In 2019, 18 female members of Parliament in the United Kingdom left their jobs rather than submit to more death threats and online abuse.
Rank misogyny helps to explain the imbalance, in part — women are increasingly in positions of power that were traditionally reserved for men. But it’s also just easier to target women, something bullies seem to know instinctively.
Including President Trump, who bears some responsibility for a number of reasons. He’s spent months openly flouting mask requirements, mocking socially responsible opponents and smearing public officials who disagreed with him. He spent years taunting his own appointees into resigning themselves. And he has incited violence among his supporters, urging them to “knock the crap out of” protesters at his rallies, praising an actual physical attack on a journalist, and, of course, mocking and insulting women.
It’s no wonder so many of his supporters believe they can use threats and brute force to bully public health officials out of their jobs.
And yes, we’ve seen similarly bad behavior from the left in some cases. We all remember the attacks against women in the Trump administration — former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders being kicked out of a restaurant, former Homeland Security Department Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen heckled at another, Rep. Maxine Waters urging her constituents to keep harassing public officials wherever they see them. None of that was good, either.
It’s important to hold public officials accountable, but our increasing predisposition for mob justice is unhealthy and ruinous.
In the case of a public health crisis, it’s also suicidal. Scaring these public servants out of their jobs during a pandemic is only hurting ourselves. We need good, qualified people to go into these local and state-level jobs without the fear of being harassed and threatened.
The obvious reality is that vigilantism may feel good in the moment, especially for misogynists, but it won’t end the pandemic any faster. In fact, it may just end up prolonging it.
S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.