Punishing the Lookers
Based somewhere in downtown Long Beach, California, a technically adept unit of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that specializes in computer forensics spends the bulk of its workday looking at child pornography.
They look at kiddie porn from the Internet.
The agents assigned to gather evidence against the suspected pedophiles who create and distribute the illegal imagery do not enjoy what they look at. Indeed, they told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that the sight of children engaged in sex acts, often with adults, tends to make them physically ill. They emphasize, repeatedly, that looking at child pornography brings them no pleasure, no titillation. They look at objectionable filth, but it’s just a job.
This last bit is important, because it is the single factor that distinguishes the brave ICE agents from the miscreants they’re attempting to apprehend. One fellow gazes at a bound young girl performing fellatio and becomes aroused; one looks at the same image and wants to vomit. One is a criminal; one is a hero. The act — looking at a photo or video on a screen — is identical. We must ask ourselves, then, what it is we really mean to prosecute and condemn when we send to prison computer users who peer at child pornography? If the act of looking at obscene material is not itself essentially evil (or illegal) — indeed, we pay our tax dollars to encourage a bunch of people in Long Beach to do so on our behalf — then what is the basis of our complaint against the people we don’t pay to look?
They like something we don’t think they ought to like. In this case, something that’s revolting, horrifying, and degrading. Never mind that the same adjectives could be applied to “American Idol,” “Ultimate Fighting Championship,” and countless prime time network television entertainment spectacles involving gruesome murders. Pedophiles looking at pedophilia enrages us in ways that an episode of, say, “24” never could.
Let me be clear: I do not advocate any activity in which someone (older or younger than the arbitrary age of 18) is acting against his or her will. I do, however, find it strange that it is the number on the birth certificate we’re most concerned about, not the actual appearance of the actor. The Internet is polluted with sites that feature “teen sex” performed by women of legal age attempting to seem of illegal age. Producing child pornography involving pre-teens is almost certainly an act of rape. But we take a dangerous first step down the slippery slope of policing thoughts if we prosecute the simple act of voluntarily looking. What if, in fact, the image of a 12-year-old child performing fellatio was a pencil drawing? What if it were a luridly descriptive pamphlet, or a novel by Nabakov? Who is the victim?
And what if your Uncle Jed, the one who keeps to himself and has never hurt anyone in his life, harbors a persistent sexual fantasy involving young boys? Perhaps he should get a job with the ICE unit; he would really enjoy his work.
More than a few of my fellow citizens seems to be comfortable with policing thoughts. They — and the politicians and pastors that lead them — would like all Americans (and all non-Americans who still have a chance to be saved) to think along prescribed lines. I don’t share their enthusiasm for homogenous conformity. Such a society will die a slow and agonizing death — the same kind of fate that we, in our less spiritually generous moments, might wish upon those who would do harm to our children.