Politics & Policy

AMBER With Anger

Not-so-smart demands.

The “miracle” of Elizabeth Smart — wonderful news, to be sure, that the 15-year-old Utah girl is back home with her family after nine months of abduction — has had a somewhat odd result: the launching of a war against House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.).

On Thursday morning, one of Elizabeth’s father’s many media stops was NBC’s Today show. One only had to be paying cursory attention to hear railing — from Mr. Smart, and others — against “a Republican congressman” for “stalling” legislation that would save the lives of boys and girls like Elizabeth, taken from their homes and families.

“He is hurting children,” Mr. Smart said of Rep. Sensenbrenner.

“I was shocked by the transcript,” one longtime media observer told NRO. “In the heat of this human-interest story, is it really fair to just let an emotional father whack at this guy?”

Ed Smart wants Sensenbrenner to take the “AMBER Alert” provision out of a legislative package creating new penalties for child abductors — and have that single provision voted on “today.” Understandably, Ed Smart is angry: He spent the last nine months worrying about his daughter, hoping for the best, facing the worst possibilities — a heartbreaking, devastating position for any parent. But that doesn’t mean his policy prescriptions are necessarily the right ones, and his suffering should not be allowed to obscure the merits of what Rep. Sensenbrenner is doing.

Mr. Smart is aiming his wrath at a congressional committee chairman in Washington, D.C., in the belief that the federal government has a panacea for child abductions; but in fact, the most effective answers are much closer to home. The AMBER Alert — named after Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old Texas girl murdered in 1996 — is a communication network using television, radio, and electric highway signs to get word out when a child is abducted. The system provides motorists with details about abducted children, and information about cars to look out for; last week, the system was credited with returning a two-year-old New Jersey girl to her mother after the girl’s father had taken her away at gunpoint.

New Jersey had an AMBER system in place because the state set one up.

There are currently 87 such systems around the country, 38 of them statewide. If there is anyone to “blame” for AMBER slowness, says David B. Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation, it is “state legislatures [who] are at fault, not Congress.”

The federal government, as it happens, has also acted on the issue of child kidnappings: Through the Department of Justice, states are currently — today, yesterday, nine months ago — getting financial assistance to set up voluntary AMBER Alert systems. Congress also funds the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The legislative package that Sensenbrenner supports would do things like require the DOJ to set up an national AMBER coordinator and authorize $25 million in various grants for states to pay for “development and enhancement” of AMBER systems and educational, training, and enforcement programs. And more than just finding kids after they are taken, H.R. 1104 seeks, too, to aid in prevention and punishment.

As Rep. Sensenbrenner stated at a press conference on Thursday afternoon, “Some have labeled the provisions of our bill as ‘extraneous.’ These ‘extraneous’ provisions provide for a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment for abductions of a child under the age of 18, lifetime supervision of child abductors and sex offenders, mandatory life imprisonment for second-time offenders, removes any statute of limitations for child abductions and sex offenses, denies pre-trial release for those who rape or kidnap children, allows local law enforcement agencies to receive funding to establish Sex Offender Apprehension Programs, and doubles the authorization for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to $20 million per year.”

H.R. 1104 is scheduled to be marked up by the Judiciary Committee on March 18. Thursday night on the Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly implored congressmen not to play politics with the AMBER alerts, i.e. to avoid holding up a national system. They’re not. In fact, there are reasonable questions could be raised about the effectiveness of the alerts — Eli Lehrer of the American Enterprise Institute notes that “the very existence of a network will lead to a lot of false alarms and dull sensitivity towards the cases where help is really needed.” But that’s a Republicans-don’t-want-kids-to-have-healthy-lunches position, so it’s not one you’ll likely see debated on Capitol Hill.

The anti-Sensenbrenner rhetoric is sadly typical of post-crisis overreactions — from the aftermath of the Columbine shootings to the response to the recent Columbia shuttle disaster. Mr. Smart’s emotional effusions can be excused; who among us cannot imagine how terrible his experience must have been? But the rest of us should support thoughtful deliberations on how best to save the Ambers of the future.


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