Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the senior editor of the Coronavirus Daily Brief and author of the new book “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
For many years, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been a leader of the anti-vaccination movement in the United States. And, for much of that time, he has been seen as an outlier. Even before the pandemic, several of his family members – including Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and former US Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II – had taken him to task for spreading “dangerous misinformation” about vaccines.
Now Kennedy is one of the leaders of a movement that is encouraging Americans to risk their own health and even that of others, since those who are vaccinated can help reduce the risk of severe disease and help to limit the scope of the pandemic, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Kennedy, by virtue of his family name and the anti-vaxxer organization he leads – the innocuously named Children’s Health Defense Fund – as well as his high profile on social media, is now one of the largest sources of vaccine disinformation in the United States.
On Friday, a CDC report noted, “During October-November, unvaccinated persons had 13.9 and 53.2 times the risks for infection and COVID-19-associated death, respectively, compared with fully vaccinated persons who received booster doses.” In other words, a person could be more than 50 times more likely to die of Covid-19 if not vaccinated and boosted.
Notably, the vaccines against Covid-19 are also extremely safe. More than half a billion doses of these vaccines have been administered in the US, yet reports of serious adverse reactions or deaths attributable to the vaccinations are quite rare, according to the CDC.
Meanwhile, more than 860,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 since the pandemic began. But the US is so flooded with vaccine misinformation – and it’s only complicating further vaccination efforts. As of December 2021, 15% of American adults 18 and older remained unvaccinated, having not received even a first shot, according to the US Census Bureau – a figure that amounts to tens of millions of unvaccinated Americans.
Kennedy has contributed to this sorry state of affairs as one of the leading sources of vaccine misinformation in the US, according to a recent study released by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization seeking to address digital hate and misinformation.
On Sunday, Kennedy addressed a crowd of anti-vaxxers at a Washington, DC, rally convened, in part, by his Children’s Health Defense Fund. He claimed that the Biden administration’s policies on vaccines were worse than the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews, saying, “Even in Hitler Germany (sic), you could, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic, like Anne Frank did.”
One of Kennedy’s majors may have been history at Harvard, but it seems to have had little effect on his actual understanding of the subject.
The Biden administration’s legitimate public health push for vaccine mandates to save an untold number of American lives is quite the opposite of the Nazis hunting down and killing 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. The use of safe vaccines by more than 200 million Americans is not a perversion of science as practiced by the Nazis, but a legitimate and approved use of medical science. And that’s to say nothing of his reference to Anne Frank, who ultimately perished in Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp. (Kennedy apologized via Twitter Tuesday for his “reference to Anne Frank, especially to families that suffered the Holocaust horrors.”)
Though Kennedy’s invocation of the Nazis in the context of Covid-19 vaccine mandates is bonkers, it is not uncommon among anti-vaxxers. At Sunday’s rally, CNN reported on a number of anti-vaxxers carrying signs about Nazism – including “Make the Nuremberg Code great again!” The code, which explained the context in which medical experiments were permissible on human beings, was established during the prosecution of Nazis who experimented on Jews in the Holocaust.
And, in November, Fox Nation commentator Lara Logan compared Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to Biden, to Dr. Josef Mengele, who infamously performed experiments on children and others prisoners held at Auschwitz concentration camp. Logan has since disappeared from the airwaves.
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Kennedy, who has degrees from Harvard University, the London School of Economics and the University of Virginia School of Law, has had notable success in his career as an environmental lawyer who helped spearhead efforts to clean up the Hudson River. And all of his education and professional success makes his crusade against vaccines even more puzzling.
Yet, today, approximately two years into the worst global pandemic in a century, Kennedy is no longer a small-time anti-vaxxer, but one of the leaders of a movement that is imperiling the lives of many Americans.
This article has been updated with the news of Kennedy’s apology for his reference to Anne Frank.