Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Politics of fear harms us all.

Pandering to paranoia is an old fashioned trait of the political classes. Terrorize people with monsters and threats and they will give you the “power” to protect them. Such fear-mongering, I dare say, is the dominant trait of politics the world over.

Some right-wing group called the Children’s Educational Network was passing out the “Freedom Internet Browser”. The entire purpose of the “Freedom” browser is to restrict the use of the internet. In conservative jargon “freedom” almost always means control.

The whole purpose of this group is to spread fear concerning predators on-line attacking children. On the cover of the free software is a bizarre picture of what one assumes to be the ideal American family.

It shows a father, mother and daughter with an American flag waving behind them. Like most American dads the father is a member of the military wearing his combat gear while being photographed with his family. To the left there is a massive bald eagle, the symbol of American patriotism and to the far Right (and the whole thing is far Right) is the statue of liberty. Conservatives love the statue but aren’t so keen on the liberty.

Of course, there is more. In the background is a black military helicopter flying. No doubt it out there to snuff out some “evildoers”.

The CEO of these panic mongers tells terrified conservatives that the reason he is spreading this browser is because he’s “scared stiff” that his five children “might get lured by an online predator.” The really funny part is that these children include a 28-year-old, 26-year-old, and a 20-year-old. When someone starts writing about fearing that his 28-year-old daughter might “get lured by an online predator” then we are talking about a major case of delusional paranoia.

Among the false claims made by this group is that “1 in 5 kids are solicited for sex by predators online over the Internet”.

Thorough studies of teens who meet people online for sexual purposes shows they are not seduced but willing participants. A study published in American Psychologist showed that “most victims who meet offenders face to face go to such meetings expecting to engage in sexual activity” and “73% of victims who had face-to-face sexual encounters with offenders did so more than once.” This hardly sounds like seduction.

In 2005 there were a grand total of 500 arrest “for Internet--initiated sex crimes, 95% o which were nonforcible.” The reality is that the relatively small number of teens who are “seduced” online were seeking out the experience. Otherwise very, very few “children” are being lured by predators. The report in American Psychologist says, “cases of pedophiles using the Internet to meet prepubescent victims directly are quite rare.”

One fact ignored by the panic-mongers is that while Internet use has exploded the rate of sexual crimes against children has actually decreased during the same period. The report notes, “that several sex crimes and abuse indicators have shown marked declines during the same period that Internet use has been expanding. rom 1990 to 2005 the number of sex abuse cases substantiated by child protective authorities declined 51%, along with other related indicators.” They noted: “To claim, as one headline from Newsweek did, that the Internet has fostered a ‘shocking increase in the sexual exploitation of children”, one has to explain why this epidemic has not been more apparent in aggregate indicators of juvenile sexual victimization.”

The image of young children being violently seduced online by predators is fundamentally a lie. The American Psychologist report says that while it “may be more compelling in sex crime advocacy and prevention to typify victims as ‘innocent young children’, but this will not promote effective public policy or preventative behaviors among those most at risk.”

What this report shows is that the purveyors of sexual panic are actually doing harm. As the study showed, it is adolescents seeking out sex online who are the main “victims” of this activity. If the goal is prevent such activity then focusing on the non problem of children being seduced online doesn’t help. It focuses efforts where there is no issue while primarily ignoring the area where some concern might be legitimate. Parents who are paranoid about their young kids being seduced might just ignore the hormone-flooded teenager using the Internet to seek out sex.

In every matter of public policy there is always a limited amount of resources available at one time. Resources expanded on one issue can’t be spent on other issues. If politically-induced fear-mongering allocates resources to non-issues it invariably redistributes them from real issues.

This is true regardless of the issues involved. When special interest groups, with their own agendas, spread fear and panic with exaggerated claims and lies they invariably distort the allocation of resources, both private and public, from real problems to their imaginary monsters. In that sense their actions harm all of us.

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