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When Snitches Become Monsters

The coronavirus lockdowns are putting our entire social fiber at risk.

The initial solidarity of the response to the coronavirus was overwhelming. People clapped for hospital staff; balcony choirs amazed the #StayAtHome social media crowd. Those who objected to lockdown policies were few and quickly dismissed as naysayers and contrarians.

Since then, weeks have passed. In the United States, lockdowns are fresh creations, still not applied throughout the country. In China, the government is lying through its teeth. Only Europe gives an indication as to what these lockdowns really mean. 

And from what we’ve seen so far, we need to be concerned.

That initial solidarity has been replaced by a fear that is being fanned through constant breaking news updates. We’re regularly given new infection and death rates that often lack any context or nuance. Did people die from COVID-19 alone, or with COVID-19 and from underlying health conditions? It’s hard to figure this out from the daily coverage. In my own country, it’s necessary to scroll down to the bottom of an article to learn that the average coronavirus victim is 86 years old.

The lockdown measures are based on very questionable foundations and have had palpable effects on interactions between people. Public shaming has become a routine online phenomenon. #StayHome has become #StayTheFuckHome, with outraged people posting pictures of those who dare to go to public parks:

British TV celebrity Piers Morgan reacted to the same picture by labeling the park-goers as “traitors.” A comment calling for the death penalty for such violators received over 200 likes.

Similar examples can be found all across Europe, not least Italy where mayors are incentivizing the shaming by calling out people in their public livestreams. In an effort to foster mob-like behavior, snitching hotlines are being set up. Eight hundred emails and phone calls came into the City of London’s own snitch line in just one weekend. Denunciation has become a hobby. In Germany, social scientists are worried as thousands of snitch calls pile up per day. In France, law enforcement is overwhelmed with cases that clearly stem out of resentment and revenge.

Sociologist Patrick Bergemann, author of Judge Thy Neighbor, and an assistant professor of organizations and strategy at the University of Chicago, says: “In Nazi Germany, an estimated 42 percent of the denunciations were false. Authorities debated changing the system, but they ultimately decided to keep it because it was great for keeping everyone in line.”

Establishing snitch lines is an opportunistic and reckless method of law enforcement, feeding on people’s worst instincts to impose a set of rules. Is it worth shredding the social fiber for the sake of laws that aren’t scientifically sound or practically enforceable or even coherent? What sense is there in allowing people to visit supermarkets—which inevitably become hotspots, including those who are infected—but barring them from visiting public parks?

The lockdown measures and law enforcement are ill-advised, but more than that, they have created lasting societal damage. Has the lockdown exposed those who are snitches in the first place or created new ones? Arguably both. Power attracts the corrupted, and corrupts those who wield it. 

Most of all, the use of nurses and doctors for public messaging has given the impression that those who argue in favor of government measures are actually sitting on a high horse. It is comparable to the use of gun violence victims in order to push for stricter public policy on firearms, the use of vaping illnesses to push for restrictions on e-cigarettes, the use of tragic cases of alcoholism to push for booze bans, and the use of terrorism victims to justify never-ending wars. All of them lead to rushed decision-making, public shaming, and mob-like behavior. None of them are rooted in sound policies.

All this snitching is likely to go even further than is currently anticipated. If the lockdown continues, we will soon be looking at the creation of a black market: underground parties, secret barbers, fake documents. As the government makes social interaction and mobility scarce, those unwilling to follow the rules will find a way to do so. I’ll have to plead the Fifth as to whether I support this. What is certain is that as this shadow economy develops, authorities will encourage citizens to check on their own neighbors, family, and friends.

On the question of lockdowns, a lot will be said about tradeoffs. Is a complete economic collapse and sovereign debt crisis (which will make us even less likely to fund public services) preferable to the hunch that lockdowns might be effective? Yet an even more fundamental tradeoff is that of our social fiber. How are the behaviors of the moment not proof that we are creating a monster?

Those who advocate in favor of these emergency measures are willingly ignoring the effects of the erosion of our social life and accepting the sowing of mistrust. Much like those who acted in bad faith following other crises in our lifetimes, they need to be held accountable for their choices.

Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le MondeLe Figaro, and Die Welt.