Author sentenced to six years in prison for possessing child porn
This recent CNN.com headline seems almost unremarkable. News reports reach us nearly every day about the sexual abuse of children. There is the Catholic priest scandal, of course, but other stories appear with great frequency: teachers, strangers, and now children's book authors. It feels as though there is an epidemic of child abuse and it is unsurprising, therefore, that the public would call for a very strong response. Such heinous crimes are surely deserving of severe punishment. Sexual abuse of children arguably ruins lives and thus is comparable in some ways to grievous bodily injury or even murder.
But wait a moment. The author in question - K.P. Bath - is not accused of molesting children. He is not even accused of participating in or abetting the molestation of children. He is accused of possessing pictures of the molestation of children.
I was curious how others would view this case, so I began to read the comments attached to the article and elsewhere. Most of them suggested that the punishment was - if anything - not severe enough. Many comments expressed the hope that Mr. Bath would be raped in prison - repeatedly and violently - as a fitting punishment for his perversion.
Remember that the crime in question is possessing pictures. In the internet age, possessing pictures can be identical to viewing them, as anything viewed on a computer is stored there unless removed by very deliberate and vigorous means.
K.P. Bath will go to prison for six years for looking at pictures - nasty, horrible pictures. His life is ruined, even if he is not assaulted in prison. There is almost nothing else that carries a stigma as strong as a child sex crime. The pictures that he looked at will ensure that he will never again lead a normal life. He will be subjected to continual suspicion and abuse and may not be able to support himself.
Why is harsh punishment appropriate for this crime? The comments are again interesting. Some suggest that looking at the pictures is equivalent to the original abuse and that the children are being abused again each time they are viewed. I would note that it is also illegal to possess pictures of simulated child pornography - even if real children are not involved. This seems to deflate the re-abuse argument somewhat.
Other comments insist that possession of child pornography must be harshly punished because it leads the viewer to abuse children. Aside from the fact that there is apparently no evidence for a causal connection between pornography and abuse, one has to consider whether our laws should go so far as to punish an activity that could - at some later date - make commission of a crime more likely. We can imagine all kinds of images and writing that could easily fall into that category, including most films made today, violence-laden as they are.
The most compelling argument for criminalizing and harshly punishing the possession of child pornography is that acquisition of these materials helps to create a market for materials whose production causes immense harm. Clearly, it is too difficult and too ineffective to target only the producers of this material. Thus, the argument goes, we must target the consumers. For the same reason, it is illegal to possess endangered species of animals - criminalization reduces the market and thus reduces the attractiveness of the production - the activity that causes the damage.
How do we understand the severity of the sentence? Six years in prison for a first offense?
Are long prison terms for child porn viewers the best way to reduce the market for this kind of material? Possession of endangered species is generally punishable by hefty fines. Would this not be effective for pornography? What about prohibiting offenders from accessing the internet or use of a monitoring system that records every site they visit?
While the goal of preventing abuse of children is obviously a good and right one, the punishments for possession seem so extreme as to suggest that there is more going on here. Indeed, the western world is, and has been for some time, seized by a terrific anxiety about child sexual abuse. We imagine sexual predators everywhere (except perhaps where they are most likely to be found - among family members and close friends). People have been arrested for taking innocent pictures of their own children. Those of us whose work involves children know that we must never be alone with a child. Sadly, it is common for teachers to avoid touching children - even to comfort them when they are distraught.
The viewers of child pornography are not sympathetic characters. Few people are willing to go out of their way to defend them or to suggest that punishments might be unnecessarily severe. Indeed, those few people who posted comments suggesting that it was not quite right to wish that K. P. Bath would be raped in prison for six years were immediately labeled "pedo" themselves. (I myself feel significant trepidation at posting this blog for fear of such reactions.)
I recall learning as a child of many examples of persecution throughout history and I remember wondering how anyone could have allowed these abuses to take place without saying anything: Nazi Germany, McCarthyism, the Spanish Inquistition, witch trials... I wondered if I would be brave enough to speak up. Viewers of child pornography are not innocent victims as were the Jews of Nazi Germany or supposed witches, but the apparently excessive harshness with which they are being treated seems to suggest some parallels.
Maybe it felt like this to be a bystander to the Inquisition. Maybe people said to themselves "Gosh, that seems a bit harsh, but I don't want them looking at me... and he is speaking heretically... who knows where that could lead! I think I'll just keep my mouth shut." It was a wise move, I suppose. Defending a Jew, an accused 'commie', heretic or witch was downright dangerous.
Somehow, we must find the courage to stand up for the rights of all - including those for whom we reflexively feel disgust. We need to ask whether the punishments being meted out are truly appropriate and necessary for the best interest of our society. I don't have the answers to those questions, but I do want to stand up and make sure they are being asked.