Politics & Policy

It’s Not The Pervert’s Problem

It's ours: Punish bad acts, not thought crimes.

Brian Dalton is a vile human being. While on probation for pandering — the charge involved pornographic photos of little kids — Dalton kept a personal journal that described in graphic detail his fantasies for sexually abusing and brutalizing fictional children in a cage in his basement. A probation officer making a routine visit found the journal. Dalton was charged with violating his parole by “pandering” again, even though he never planned on distributing his private pedophilia-diary. Apparently his journal descriptions were so disgusting, the grand jury asked the prosecutor to stop reading from it by the time he reached the second page. One grand juror was reduced to tears.

Dalton pled guilty to one count of pandering and received a seven-year sentence.

It was a bad ruling, but I don’t feel bad for Dalton. Ascribe it to my vestigial illiberalism. Pedophiles, child pornographers, and regular listeners of the Mitch Albom Show are simply outside of my zone of empathy. Okay, that’s not entirely true. There must be some poor souls who are too paralyzed or palsied in their convalescent beds who might have dropped the remote on the floor and hence cannot change the channel or call for a nurse to do it. I feel for these people.

But for the kiddie-porn guys, I’ve got nothing for ‘em. I’m sure some are just sick and need help and all that, but I guess I’m just not a good enough person to sympathize with such folks. I’m just being honest.

Regardless, this Dalton guy shouldn’t have been sent to jail. The law should not recognize the category of thought crimes. Dalton didn’t molest any kids and he served his sentence for the crimes he committed. His journal was private and he didn’t distribute it or, apparently, intend to distribute it.

But let us keep in mind that the problem here is not that Mr. Dalton is going to jail; it’s that the law is punishing a person for his thoughts, not his deeds. In other words, the lamentable damage here is to our system, not to this pervert.

And, yes, I can see the argument that writing a vile journal about abusing children could be seen as a deed, not a thought. But diaries are rightly understood to be innately private transcripts of our innermost thoughts. The government should treat them with the greatest respect (though I do not recall all of the people wringing their hands over Dalton being similarly outraged by the scouring of former Republican Sen. Bob Packwood’s diary — but that’s a different story).

Pedophiles and the pornographers who cater to them are difficult people to deal with because what they do is evil. And enthusiastically protecting the rights of evil people is hard to do for most of us. It’s a classic example of a hard case making for bad law.

All that aside, I guess I still have a problem with the people who think it’s an obvious outrage. The ACLU’s Nadine Strossen is — of course — apoplectic, saying, “I’m just horrified by this case.”

Bob Herbert, who far too often writes like the best student in a high-school journalism class, vents, “Sexual hysteria has given the thought police the opening they’ve craved. Politicians, afraid of being accused of favoring child pornography, will not stand up for that most fundamental of freedoms — freedom of thought.” He fears that the Ohio law used to put away Dalton could be used to censor and imprison Maya Angelou, Philip Roth, and Judy Blume.

Oh, come on. This is slippery-slope buffoonery.

I want a show of hands; who thinks there’s even a remote chance Ohio will ever use an anti-pedophile law to ban Portnoy’s Complaint, let alone ban I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and throw Maya Angelou in prison. Come on, hands up, everybody: Who thinks this is possible?

Okay, wait a second, I’m still counting in the back. Wait, keep your hands up. Is that everybody? Ok, good. Now: You are all idiots.

Some slopes aren’t that slippery. Indeed, it’s offensive as a matter of political imagination to say that because a local community is overzealous in its pursuit of child molesters and pornographers that we are significantly closer to having Judy Blume working the laundry at Riker’s Island.

This sort of thing reminds me of the people who said that America was just as bad as the Soviet Union because we put lots of people in mental institutions too. Postmodern theorists would say that America’s repressive moralistic regime was “imprisoning” dissenters in much the same way the Soviet Union did.

Of course, this was an evil argument because the Soviet Union committed people for questioning the morality or legitimacy of the State, while the U.S. put people in mental hospitals because they thought their toasters were bars of soap and kept forgetting to take their pants off before they went potty. These are different things.

Thankfully the Soviet Union is gone but, alas, American and European liberal intellectuals still like to refer to America’s “political prisoners.” America has no political prisoners. It imprisons criminals, some of whom, incidentally, have politics liberals like or admire. Mumia Abu-Jamal, for example, is on death row because he murdered a cop, not because he wrote a provocative essay questioning federalism or the infield-fly rule. And yet in America, and around the world, he’s hailed as a “political prisoner” (see what I mean by clicking here.)

Too often we turn guilty people into martyrs and heroes because the government failed to dot every “I” and cross every “T.” For example, Rodney King was a petty criminal who, like a salmon seeking his spawning grounds, was in a desperate search for a serious ass-beating. He finally found one. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the cops were right to give him the one he got. The relevant point is that Rodney King didn’t do anything admirable.

And sometimes liberals and civil-libertarians of a certain stripe are so dogmatic in their conviction that the American government is evil, they’re perfectly willing to deify evil people who stand up to the government. They first started loving Larry Flynt not because he defended Bill Clinton, but because he beat an obscenity prosecution. The People v. Larry Flynt portrayed Flynt as a principled hero of the First Amendment when he was really just a disgusting smut peddler. Worse, the producers didn’t have the guts to depict Hustler as anything more than a slightly saucier version of Playboy, hence turning Flynt’s enemies into prudish caricatures.

And there’s a similar danger here. If the battle to free Brian Dalton goes on for very long, I can virtually guarantee people will start trying to justify or at least mitigate Dalton’s putrescence. Civil-libertarian dogma is useful because it prevents bad things from happening to good and innocent people. Unfortunately, the price we pay for this safeguard is that occasionally, bad and guilty people get better treatment than they deserve.

Let’s put it this way: I see nothing inherently wrong with mandatory death penalties for serial pedophiles and compulsory life sentences for child pornographers (I’m not necessarily pushing the idea, I just don’t see any major violation of principle with the idea).

But if we are going to have more lenient penalties for people like Dalton, we still cannot turn around and convict him because of the thoughts in his head or in his diary. (Why is anyone surprised he thinks this way? Didn’t we know this when he went to jail the first time?) Justice demands that you cannot be punished twice for the same crime and you can’t be punished for what you might do. If you don’t like it, make the punishments tougher the first time. We have to abide by the costs we impose on certain activities and not act like a loan shark or mobster, constantly shaking people down for illegitimate infractions.

The fact that Ohio saw fit to send this guy back to prison for a thought crime is really a better indication that Ohio shouldn’t have let him out of prison in the first place.


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