The Road to Waco

Protesters rally against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in Washington, D.C., September 27, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
On our current moment of mass hysteria

The case of Frank Fuster has been back in the news thanks in part to this magazine’s efforts at reminding the public of the injustice of his situation. Fuster is, as National Review’s headline put it, Janet Reno’s Last Victim, the last man serving time for a conviction resulting from the “Satanic ritual abuse” hysteria of the Eighties and Nineties.

Fuster is certainly a criminal (he served time for homicide, and there is no question as to his guilt in that matter), and he may even be a child molester, but it is almost certain that he did not commit the crimes for which he was convicted, because it is almost certain that those crimes did not occur at all.

In Fuster’s case and in others like it, discredited and unethical psychological and pseudo-psychological techniques were used to unearth “recovered memories” in children, memories that were then used to convict men and women, many of them workers in day-care centers, of sexual assault. The stories the children told were, as stories invented by little children often tend to be, preposterous. They told not only of being sexually abused but of being transported via flying saucer to outer space to be abused, of being taken from their day-cares in American suburbs to distant Mexican prisons where they were abused and returned within the course of a few hours, of being dismembered and reassembled, of murder, being buried alive, and much more. That there was (of course) no evidence that any of these things had happened, that prosecutors dismissed the details as inconsequential distractions from the “greater truth,” that Satanic sexual-abuse cults were real and active in Florida suburbs.

Of course, there was no evidence that these Satanic sex-abuse cults existed at all, much less that they had infiltrated the nation’s day-care centers, but that was treated as beyond question: They had to exist, because we were having a national hysteria about them, and we wouldn’t be having a national hysteria about nothing, would we? Why would we do that?

Janet Reno was prominent among those prosecutors and took the lead in the Fuster case. She oversaw the torture of his young wife, who was kept in solitary confinement, kept naked, denied basic hygiene (an observer testified that he found her covered with sores), subjected to sleep deprivation, etc. And though it is impossible to say at this point, it is probable that she was a party to the falsification of evidence purporting to show that a child in the case was infected with gonorrhea by Fuster; she certainly was complicit in the destruction of that evidence before it could be more fully examined. (Subsequent tests found no gonorrhea in Fuster or in the child.) Reno and her colleagues exhibited absolutely moral certainty in the justness of their cause: When the sexual abuse of children is at issue, justice will bear a great deal of innovation.

In a sane world, Janet Reno would have been removed from office, disbarred, and possibly charged with criminal offenses of her own. Instead, President Bill Clinton made her attorney general of the United States of America, with predictable consequences: Her most significant act in office was overseeing the massacre of religious nonconformists in Waco, Texas, schismatic Seventh-Day Adventists who had been targeted by Reno because they were, she believed, a cult involved in the sexual abuse of children. (There were some ludicrous gun charges, too.) But there was never any substantiation of that child abuse. No problem: As the Washington Post put it at the time, “Officials said lack of evidence does not mean abuse did not occur.” Well, if officials say so . . .

It is not coincidental that the Satanic-abuse hysteria of the late 20th century was targeted at child-care facilities. The underlying cultural anxiety was and is easy enough to detect: The United States had gone through an unprecedented wave of divorce in the Seventies and Eighties, and the first generations of young Americans being raised primarily by single mothers was showing some troubling signs. Working mothers especially were obliged to entrust those children to strangers in day-cares, which was a source of much anxiety, a great deal of pop-culture hand-wringing about “latch-key kids,” and some academic interest as well. The day-care centers and their workers — including vulnerable immigrants such as Fuster and his wife — became the vessel for our national anxieties about the state of our families and the quality of our families. There was a ritual going on, after all: the ancient and familiar sacrifice of the scapegoat.

A lighter version of the same dynamic played out in the contemporaneous panic about role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and the purportedly Luciferian direction of the music of the era: Rob Halford of Judas Priest was dragged into court, and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister showed up in full rock regalia to give Congress a very entertaining civics lesson. A heartbeat later, the focus shifted to rap music and its performers, who intersected in the American mind with national anxieties related to race, crime, and drugs. Of course it had to be the case that Ozzy Osborne or Ice-T or Satan was responsible for the state of our nation’s children. The alternative was too terrible to contemplate: that the responsible party was . . . us.

Our public-policy discourse is dominated by members of our elites and hence tends to reflect elite interests and, at times, elite hysterias. A great deal of attention has been paid in recent years to the epidemic of rape on our nation’s college campuses. That epidemic is a fiction — it simply does not exist, and the data suggest that women in college are less likely than women in the general population to be raped. We are not having a national discussion of rape on Indian reservations, in remote communities in Alaska, or in poor urban areas — i.e., in the places where the incidence of rape is in fact elevated. During the Satan-ritual-abuse panic — and at this minute — one of the most likely places for a child to experience sexual abuse is in the home, especially in “blended” families in which minors cohabit with adult men to whom they are not biologically related. Mothers’ live-in boyfriends and stepfathers commit a great deal more sexual abuse than do the nefarious minions of Satan in underground cults.

But of course the reality — that this world is the mess we make of it — is too painful to accept.

There are legitimate concerns about how American police operate, but there isn’t an epidemic of police shooting unarmed black men. Mass killings on the Columbine model are neither a new phenomenon nor a uniquely American one. The administration of justice in the Dallas suburbs is not being handed over to imams operating sharia courts. Occult powers are not behind our current state of affairs: not Satan, not Moloch, not “white privilege,” not “patriarchy,” not “toxic masculinity,” not capitalism, not the Koch brothers, not George Soros, not the “International Jew,” not the NRA, not Brett Kavanaugh.

Mass hysterias come and go. Let us hope that the current one passes before it finds its Janet Reno, and its Waco.

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