In California Governor Jerry Brown signs a law prohibiting registered sex offenders from offering their homes as polling places. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Assemblyman (and former LAPD officer) Stephen Knight, says the legislation is necessary to protect high-school volunteers and children accompanying their parents on Election Day.
In Vermont a $13.8 million network of twenty-eight communications towers and eight “public safety answering points” is under construction to aid first responders in case of a terrorist attack. Homeland Security, which is funding the project, has granted Vermont—population: 620,000; state crime ranking: forty-nine—more than $90 million since 2001.
In New York a maverick group of psychologists and urban designers are agitating to bring back the old monkey bars and asphalt surfaces of playgrounds, which were abolished because of perceived risks of accidents and lasting psychological trauma. Sixty pages of federal playground regulations now advise, among other precautions, against children wearing drawstring sweatshirts and “mittens connected by strings through the arms.” Write the psychologists: “Paradoxically, our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”
How are these items—collected at random during one week in 2011—related?
The answers can be found in Roger N. Lancaster’s Sex Panic and the Punitive State, a riveting history and virtuosic analysis of the way America’s thirty-year panic about child sexual abuse has fueled an ever-increasing appetite to “protect, punish, and preempt” crime and has served as the model for the creation of “something resembling a police state” in the United States.
I haven’t read Lancaster’s book, though now I will. I have read Levine’s most important work, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, which made her a walking target for those on the Right who idolize the punitive State, and those on the Left who idealize the protective one. (Published by the University of Minnesota, it caused her morals to be debated by the Minnesota State Legislature, that frozen assemblage of Athenian ethicists.) She can summarize better than anyone how all those disparate strands of war — the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, the War on the Poor — come together in a single, seductive justification: the War for Our Kids.
Here’s a little more — on how the “emergency” crisis of endangered children becomes an excuse for creating an extralegal world where offenders are subject to permanent punishment, a kind of invisible Guantanamo at home kept going for the sake of innocence and family:
The American carceral state imprisons an unprecedented number of its citizens: with 5 percent of the world’s people, the United States now has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, leading all other nations in both percentage and raw numbers. On the other side of the bars, one in four-to-five American workers is engaged in private security or other “guard labor.” This “penal Keynsianism,” comments Lancaster, “solves two economic problems: it creates jobs while guarding the unemployed.”
Sex offenders constitute a relatively small proportion of people under the thumb of the criminal justice system. But the harshness of their punishment and the disregard of their rights lie outside the Pale even in an extraordinarily harsh system. And in a nation famous for second chances, sex offenders are uniquely bereft of the opportunity to discharge their debt to society, repent of their transgressions, and start anew. …
In an era where parents are afraid to let their children play outside—or fortify them with helmets and cell phones whenever they do—“risk assessment” is a growing discipline, which looks like science. It is in fact symbolic: the actuarial encoding of hyperbolic public apprehension, ever on the uptrend. Phil Taylor, a former Texas-certified sex offender therapist, told me that “sex offender ‘management’ is done like business management”: the state calculates its potential profits (including political ones) and losses and structures its policing bureaucracies accordingly. Never mind that what shows up in the debit column are the civil and human rights of people once called U.S. citizens. …
This moral panic has been going on for nearly a century, interrupted by one brief decade. It is protean: in the last three decades alone, it has metamorphosed from outsized estimates of incest to belief in covens of Satanic abusers to the government’s claim of a massive global traffic in child porn—which can be neither substantiated nor refuted, since the public and the press are prohibited from viewing the images.
Just read the review.