The libertarian parent's dilemma
As a father, I do not much care what happens to those individuals who are guilty of violent sex offences against children. Throw away the key, throw them down the stairs, whatever; I won't lose any sleep over one less Sidney Cooke in the world.
But as a father with libertarian principles, I do care about the implications of the national panic about paedophiles that is now gripping Britain (and, it seems, Belgium, Italy, the USA etc).
Of course I want my daughter to grow up in safety. But what is 'safe' or secure about living in an atmosphere of general hysteria, fear and witch-hunts? What will her future hold in a society which can turn hounding a handful of sexual deviants into both the big political issue of the day and a national sport? Read the papers, and you will see that paedophiles are not the only ones developing an unhealthy obsession.
Yes, I want to think of myself and be thought of as a good parent. But I object to the demand that I should have to prove to the general public that I am a decent father by joining a conscript lynching party; it is as if we were living under the law of the jailhouse, where the only 'community' we can all belong to is a brotherhood of nonce-bashers.
Predatory child sex offenders are not stalking every schoolyard. The number of children killed by strangers in Britain remains as low as ever, at about five a year. So what is all of this hysteria really about?
To me, the paedophile panic looks like the latest outburst of one of the most destructive sentiments of our age: 'stranger danger', the fear and mistrust of other people that has grown stronger as the old communal ties and collective solidarities weaken.
Stranger danger has helped to create a climate of insecurity where, recent surveys show, British children spend more time than ever before alone with their own TVs, CDs and PCs in the gilded cages of their bedrooms, worrying about what might happen to them to the point where some are already on Prozac. And worse is to come if we continue to fill our children with a fear of life.
You do not have to be an advocate of 'pervert's rights' to see that there are also worrying legal implications in the paedophile panic. On 5 April, I read a Sunday Times report headlined 'Straw plans to lock up child sex offenders indefinitely'. Everybody nodded in agreement. How many noticed the brief aside that home secretary Jack Straw's plans for indefinite detention 'would also apply to other categories of offenders who show no remorse for their crimes and are likely to reoffend'?
These changes risk undermining the entire criminal justice system, allowing the Home Office to keep various prisoners locked up not because of what they have done, but because they have the wrong attitude, or because victims' campaigns demand it, or because the authorities say they might commit an offence at some time in the future. It all sounds like an unsavoury cross between a medieval-style system of retribution, and Stalin's 'mental hospitals'. But under cover of the paedophile panic, it seems such measures can pass without criticism in Britain today.
The fact that you are not allowed to question any aspect of the anti-paedophile crusade is itself surely reason enough to protest. 'Paedophile', like 'Nazi', has become a word with the power to silence debate; one mention of it is enough to end any discussion and make dissent unacceptable. That kind of moralistic censorship should always be challenged. Apart from anything else, how are we going to deal with what we hate and fear if we cannot even have an honest discussion of the facts?
Nobody can remain immune to an intense panic such as that we are witnessing about child sex offenders. Like every other parent, I worry about my daughter's safety today. But I also know that her future as a free individual will be at risk if she grows up in a world of fear and mistrust where it is assumed that every adult is a potential paedophile in need of constant surveillance, and that every child is a potential victim in need of lifelong supervision.
Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998