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Stop the threats

There are a plethora of ways to vent frustration with the ongoing disruptions we’re all living through because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For that matter, there are plenty of avenues to engage in civil disagreement over the administration of public health measures meant to curb the disease’s spread.

That’s why we have become increasingly concerned about the ongoing de-evolution of dialogue when folks decide it’s necessary to voice their disapproval of a policy or opinion. The latest incident illustrative of the ongoing degeneration was described by Grand Traverse County Health Department Director Wendy Hirschenberger on Wednesday.

The veteran public health director, someone who has spent the past year doing her level best to guide our community through a pandemic, told Grand Traverse County commissioners she and her staff had received threats, by both phone and email, after encouraging local school officials to move secondary school classes online this week.

“Throughout the entire pandemic our staff has been yelled at, sworn at, screamed at and threatened — more than anybody should in their job,” Hirschenberger said. “We are actively being threatened right now.”

She said the outbursts now are in the hands of police — where they belong. And we hope investigators find and prosecute the callers and writers.

That last bit is an opinion to which we don’t arrive without a lot of thought and a little consternation. As champions of the First Amendment, we wholeheartedly embrace and support free speech. Protecting the free flow of opinions and ideas, especially the ones with which we vigorously disagree, is a necessity to preserve a free society.

But the things we’ve witnessed during the past year have moved beyond free speech. Somehow, in the midst of pandemic-induced isolation, the worst conduct we witness in the social media melee has infiltrated real life.

Somewhere along the way, some in our communities regressed past the lessons about appropriate interactions with others we all learn as toddlers.

The fact is, the latest threats Hirschenberger described are not isolated incidents. During the past year, our reporting has mentioned a handful of public officials, public commenters, and local workers who have received threats. We have heard of several more in passing that didn’t appear in our reporting.

Don’t get us wrong, verbal assaults, and even promises of violence, occurred long before the COVID-19 pandemic. But a year of limited in-person social interactions seems to have taken its toll. That hiatus from face-to-face disagreement seems to have opened a behavior bridge that transferred to real life the detritus that passes as appropriate behavior on the internet.

When did some of us begin to believe it’s a good idea to call and threaten a public health worker whose job requires difficult decisions based on expert guidance? Or to promise violence against a store clerk?

Folks seem far more comfortable shouting things today they wouldn’t have considered uttering even under their breath a year ago. Hopefully this is a trend we all see undone as we return to pre-pandemic interactions.

Because we refuse to normalize threats as part of appropriate dialogue, and you shouldn’t either.

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