If you spend any time on the internet, chances are you’ve come across a video of some idiot, responding to widespread fear and anxiety about the coronavirus, acting a damn fool: licking food or drinking from containers on grocery store shelves, coughing on essential workers, or loudly proclaiming they have the deadly and highly contagious virus.
In an attempt to curb this bad behavior, law enforcement officials around the country are charging these uncouth offenders with felonies, and in some cases, with acts of terrorism.
As the Washington Post reports, in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, terrorism charges have been levied on a variety of alleged offenders, several of whom were accused of purposely coughing and spitting on food products or grocery employees. In Tennessee, one district attorney is pursuing a terrorism charge against a man who coughed on shoppers in a Tennessee Walmart while shouting that he had the coronavirus. This week, a Texas man was arraigned on federal charges for a coronavirus hoax: The FBI arrested him for claiming on Facebook that he paid a person with coronavirus to empty out San Antonio-area grocery stores.
“What might have been a joke to one person, became a frightening threat to several others,” District Attorney General Matthew Stowe told Nashville’s News Channel 5. “A violation of this sort where the agent is indeed an active agent is an act of terrorism and a Class A felony; violation for the hoax of spreading is a Class C felony.”
At first blush, the severity of these penalties seem to make sense: the contagion spreading through the U.S. is severe, and while Americans of all backgrounds have succumbed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, it has disproportionately hit black people and other socioeconomically vulnerable communities. The police, as well as other essential workers, have also been explicitly targeted and hurt by these threats: the NYPD recently reported that 20 percent of their uniformed workforce is out sick. In New Jersey, Attorney General Gurbi Grewal said that an officer spat on by a woman fighting back a DWI arrest eventually contracted COVID-19.
When so much of the current epidemic in the U.S. can be blamed on a lack of decisive action—or poor compliance to explicitly stated guidance—this aggressive law enforcement stance might even feel satisfying.
But if the goal is actually managing the pandemic—that is, limiting the amount of people who get sick or die from COVID-19—more aggressive criminal enforcement doesn’t make much sense. In fact, it points to a longstanding and troubling American tradition of managing crises through cops and cages, rather than providing care.
The guidance on terrorism charges comes directly from the top. According to the Post, within the last several weeks, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen sent a memorandum to law enforcement officials across the country stating they could apply terrorism laws to people who threaten to contaminate others with the coronavirus:
“Because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a ‘biological agent’ ” under federal law, Rosen wrote, “such acts potentially could implicate the Nation’s terrorism-related statutes.” He pointed to laws regarding the handling or production of biological agents for use as a weapon and hoaxes involving biological weapons.
Charging offenders with terrorist acts is intended to do several things: Firstly, as one might expect, those found guilty of a terrorist act (including a hoax) face severe penalties. As the Post reports, depending on the kind of threat you make and the state you live in, you could face fines ranging from $200 to more than $250,000, or face a prison sentence of up to 100 years or more.
Harsh sentences like these emphasize the seriousness of the crime—and make no mistake: intentionally exposing someone to COVID-19 is an appalling, heinous, and despicable act. But studies have shown that harsh sentences aren’t a deterrent to crime; in fact, experts say if crime reduction is the goal, you want to create fewer opportunities for crime to happen, or for the offender to be caught. Being charged with a misdemeanor or a lower-grade felony would have roughly the same deterrent impact on many of these offenders as a terrorism charge—and in either case, in the middle of a pandemic that has shifted so much of what we thought we knew or could expect of the world, those penalties will probably not be front-of-mind for some of these offenders.
If there is a trend of people faking coronavirus, coughing on people, or otherwise trying to troll and actively incite harm based on the pandemic, it’s worth taking stock of who is doing this. Do they have underlying mental health issues? Are they younger or older? Do they feel angry, or helpless? Or are their motivations more deliberate, and more menacing? Without knowing the answers to those questions, we can’t possibly offer suitable or sustainable solutions, whether they be social wellness programs, more robust outreach to impacted neighborhoods, or increased monitoring of major retail and grocery stores and better protections for the employees working in them.
It’s also worth considering who will actually get punished for these crimes. Part of the impetus for levying these kinds of harsh charges is that incidents like these are directly impacting police forces across the country, as the Post writes. While many—though certainly not all—of the offenders appear to be white so far, that may not always be the case, especially if coughing on an officer during an arrest can qualify you for a terrorism charge. Our past and current history of mass incarceration make very clear who police and prosecutors target heaviest, if not first.
It’s clear that preventing these situations from happening at all is the best-case scenario: Locking up someone after the fact doesn’t stop contamination that may have already occurred from spreading. In fact, it may increase the risk of spreading the virus.
Throwing more people in jail isn’t just a moral dilemma for this country, it’s now an urgent public health risk. The conditions in correctional facilities are primed to spread the coronavirus: close quarters, vulnerable populations with limited access to medicine and treatment, shared bathrooms, and lack of proper sanitizing equipment. And if the coronavirus spreads in this country’s jails and prisons—as it already has been—not only will those incarcerated die, it could overwhelm hospital wards across the country, tipping the scales at a time when every ventilator, every hospital bed, is the difference between life or death.
Why would we pursue any strategy that potentially increases the number of people in jail, and increases the risk that people are exposed to the virus? When budgets are strapped across the country, why would we continue to put money into policing and aggressive prosecution that can be put toward social work, medical care, outreach to vulnerable communities, or staffing up administrative personnel so massive amounts of people can receive the unemployment benefits they need?
People—and nations—define themselves in crisis. Absent strong moral leadership, cities and states across the country are left with the task of deciding who they will be, what they will prioritize, and who they will care for. The assholes coughing on vulnerable workers are easy villains, and at a time when the coronavirus is hitting every American in myriad agonizing ways, it feels good to punish someone for the pain we’re all feeling. Imposing terrorist charges on these people could be cathartic, but it won’t make us any safer. Only care can do that.