Russian Roulette is Not a Game

The senseless tragedy of those who refuse to get vaccinated

A man dressed as Uncle Sam takes part in a New York City protest against mandated COVID vaccines for health care workers on July 9, 2021. (Photo by John E. Smith/VIEWpress via Getty Images)

Every day now you can read about someone who is hospitalized, dying or dead because of the coronavirus and their refusal to get vaccinated. It’s easy to be angry at the foolishness and selfishness, the behavior that has put these individuals at risk as well as their family members, neighbors or anyone else who has been in contact with them. Their choices, seen through the prism of the grave, are tragically senseless.

Since watching The Deer Hunter, the 1979 film which includes harrowing scenes of Christopher Walken and Robert DeNiro forced by the Viet Cong into playing Russian roulette, I’ve been reflecting on this deranged act. In multiple scenes, a single bullet is placed into one chamber of a six-shooter, the cylinder is spun, and the victimized soldier places the revolver’s muzzle at his temple and pulls the trigger. It’s hard to describe the look on their faces when the gun clicks and there’s no bullet: Relief, yes, but also a hint of adrenaline rush and a surge of power that they survived this ultimate game of life and death.

But that only works because they possess the knowledge that they could have died—that they had a one out of six chance of meeting their end, yet they beat those awful odds.

There’s a story in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written by Alex Haley, in which Malcolm X once played Russian roulette during his days as a burglar—pulling the trigger three times—to show that he was not afraid to die. But as we find out in the book’s epilogue, Malcolm X had hid the bullet in his hand, ensuring that none of those clicks would lead to his early, unnecessary death.

Which brings us back to the anti-vaxxers, a growing number of whom are ingesting ivermectin, a dewormer for horses and cows, a treatment said to cost about $300 and which provides no protection against COVID-19. It’s hard to feel sorry for people who can so easily be convinced that they should shell out money for a treatment that makes them sick rather than get the shot that is scientifically proven to save their lives. Yet it’s perhaps too easy to focus all the blame on the criminal conmen and other cynical hucksters who figured out a new angle to separate this crowd from their money—or, worse, their lives—in order to further enrich themselves and get and keep power.

Who knew that “owning the libtards” or freedom from wearing a little piece of cloth or mocking Dr. Fauci’s knowledge or standing with Trump was worth dying for? I have to wonder how often they have that momentary adrenaline rush and a surge of power that they survived the ultimate game of life and death. But that assumes they’ve genuinely grasped that the coronavirus is the real thing, a killer virus and not a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats, the scientists and other elites.

Consider H. Scott Apley, a leader of the Texas GOP, who responded in April to the Pfizer vaccine’s successful clinical trials by calling the Maryland public health expert who shared the news “an absolute enemy of a free people.” (He also tweeted this charming hashtag: “ShoveTheCarrotWhereTheSunDontShine.”) The following month he declared he wished he lived in Cincinnati so he could have attended a local mask burning party.

Earlier this month, Apley tested positive for coronavirus. He was hospitalized in Galveston and put on a ventilator. But there was no escaping the bullet in the cylinder: Apley, 45 years old and married with a baby son, died of the virus.

A week ago the former occupant of the White House told a rally crowd in Alabama, a state with one of the country’s lowest vaccination rates, that they should get vaccinated. Put aside his utter refusal to take the necessary steps that would have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of now-dead Americans or his own secret vaccine-taking, and instead note the crowd’s reaction to his request: They booed and jeered. The six-shooter is in their hands now—and they don’t want to be told that they were wrong to pick it up.

Even by the death cult leader. For four solid years and more, they were fed lie after lie by a pathological liar who convinced them to toss aside facts, ignore their eyes and ears, reject the scientists, assume Democrats are the enemy, blame refugees and other people of color, accept conspiracy theories that showcase who’s out to get them, and believe in Trump.

With repetition not only came success at degrading people’s capacity to know the truth or care about it—it’s fueled a kind of madness among the aggrieved. This methodical effort to feed delusion has reached its zenith with the Big Lie of election fraud, the denial of COVID’s deadly impact and the rejection of life-saving vaccines.

No one knows exactly how many millions are drawn to QAnon and their extreme conspiracy theories—Facebook hosts groups and pages with over 3 million members and followers—but recognize how far out this goes: In this cult’s telling, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis are among a global cabal of satan-loving pedophiles who, in addition to molesting children, kill and eat their victims.

Is it any wonder that those most likely to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine are Republicans who watch far-right TV news, or that QAnon believers were significantly more likely to reject the vaccine than those who doubt or dismiss QAnon?

Honestly, I hesitate delving too far into these rabbit holes of conspiracy and amplifying the wild conjuring. After all, I’m the guy who wrote a book about Lee Harvey Oswald that made the case that you don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain why Oswald was motivated to assassinate JFK.

But it takes dangerous misinformation and a certain kind of madness to ignore over 637,0000 coronavirus deaths in the US, refuse vaccination and remain convinced death won’t find you. As a doctor in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote last month about unvaccinated COVID patients, “One of the last things they do before they’re intubated is beg me for the vaccine. I hold their hand and tell them that I’m sorry, but it’s too late.”

Russian roulette is not a game.

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