In the 1950s Sioux City and the good people of Iowa snapped. Two grisly murders of children, one still unsolved fifty years later, unhinged common folks. And hence a tragedy was born of the neccesity to do something, anything, to displace the anxiety that comes of confronting evil.
Laws were passed to round up and detain sexual psychopaths and to remand them for treatment until such time as they were "cured."
On its face, the law sounds like a good idea. If you can identify a sexual predator before he strikes, then, the argument goes, proactive detention saves lives. But just who is a predator?
In mid-twentieth century Sioux City gay men were regarded as perverts, and, hence, ready to snap. The city's children needed protection from what right-minded people thought the men might do to children. A new wing was opened at Mount Pleasant. Ward 15 was open for business. So Sioux City police officers raided men's rooms and resorted to the usual trickery of interrogating the frightened with veiled threats and subtle promises of hope. Lists were created, and kept. The different were targeted and some two dozen of more men were taken to a psychiatric facility and held for months while the mental health professionals tried to figure out why the men were there and what to do with them.
Neil Miller's Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey To The Paranoid Heart of the 1950s tells the tale with elegant and compelling prose. Although the book was written in 2002, it bears reading today. We are no less prone to the sort of moral panic that yields bad law now than folks were in the 1950s. We still resort to undiscriminating fear when confronted with a sex crime. All that has changed is the name of the victims.
"Despite their good intentions, sexual psychopath laws invariably took a catch-all approach to sex offenders. The intended targets may have been rapists and murdereds, but in almost every state with a sexual psychopath law, little or no distinction was made between nonviolent and violent offenses, between consensual and nonconsensual behavior, or between harmless 'sexual deviates' and dangeours sex criminals," Miller writes of the 1950s.
We struggle with the same sense of panic today. Hence, Megan's Law, requiring registration of an ever-expanding class of so-called sex offenders, ranging from Romeo and Juliet couplings, to folks who urinate in public, to folks who look at the wrong sort of pictures. Paranoia runs deep in American culture; fear of the other reflects and gnawing uncertainty about just how deep the currents run in the mainstream of American life.
"[S]ex crime panics -- and panics of all sorts -- are very much in the American grain, from the Salem witch trials down to our own time.... Public fears and anxieties can lead to the enactment of bad laws, and laws enacted in an atmosphere of fear and anxiety can lead to even worse consequences."
Miller tells a story about Iowa in the 1950s, but it requires little to see that the same tale is today unfolding before our eyes. There's something wrong when a society makes a celebrity of the surviving family of a crime. What's worse is taking a shocking crime and treating it as somehow reflecting the norm in deviance. Adam Walsh's father is a celebrity, recognized for no accomplishment of his own save his very public grief and anger. And yet, Congress passed a law to extend sex offender registration because of the pressure Mr. Walsh brought to bear. I wonder what a social historian will make of this pathology in the decades to come, and how many lives will be destroyed.