Do any of you watch the show “Without A Trace”? I’ve seen a few episodes and they almost all seem to boil down to two points:





It seems like the entire tilt of the show is in the direction of providing justification and ammunition for every ounce of parental paranoia in existence. Seriously, it seems like the moral to the story, to the extent that there is one, is “Never, ever take your eyes off your child for a single instant!”

It makes me think a bit of Adam Walsh, the anti-crime crusader made famous by America’s Most Wanted whose own case has recently been closed. On the surface, no doubt Walsh’s crusade is a righteous one. Going after the bad guys, after all, is something that we can all support.

Of course, in his own way, Walsh represents more than that.

A while back, a blog was trying to make the point that as bad as things are right now, they’re not nearly as bad as are times that they are compared to. The Great Depression. The 60’s. So on. The author asked if anybody, given the choice, would return to the 1960’s. More than one person said that they would in fact go back in time because the world in general has become a darker place than it was when they could walk freely in the neighborhood without fear of getting kidnapped or molested.

Certainly there are places that are a lot more dangerous than they used to be. But how much more dangerous is it in places where residents spend their time surfing the internet and commenting on political blogs? How much more dangerous is it for the types of crimes that haunted the Walsh’s for so long?

I’m not convinced very. If at all.

Walsh’s program (from the best that I can recall) focused primarily on wanted fugitives, but Walsh himself represented the dangers of the modern world. Perhaps a program that better represents that today is To Catch a Predator, which sets up pedophiles. The program has come under some scrutiny lately for glamorizing tragedy and even in some quarters for being too hard on suspects that haven’t been given a fair trial.

Part of me likes the program. I like the notion that pedophiles would live in fear of being exposed not just to the long arm of the law but on national television. High-profile stuff like that may actually make some people think twice. The effect on potential perpetrators is positive. The effect on parents and children, though, is more worthy of concern.

In my later high school years I spent significant amounts of time online talking to people. My parents didn’t know the dangers that it presented. This was, on the whole, a good thing. Otherwise they would have curtailed my activities. That would have prevented me from getting much of the socialization that I desperately needed. But to listen to critics, the room that they gave me made my parents somewhere between negligent and grossly reckless.

I’ve mentioned before that I favor a more laid back approach on the part of parents and I guess some of my trepidation with the Harbingers is that they get in the way of that. Not with calm, necessary warnings about potential dangers but with scaremongering. I’m not sure that these types of warnings do a whole lot of good. They seem more likely to create parents that alternate between frantic and exhausted. Fighting all of the little battles so that they’re too spent to keep their eye on the big ones.

Often, they seem to set parents up to set unreasonable limitations. Limitations that, when unsuccessful, leave kids unprepared to deal with the dangers that they weren’t supposed to be explosed to. It’s analogous to preaching abstinence in cases where a more level-headed discussion of the potential dangers of sex would be more appropriate. Or setting up an unreasonable curfew that leaves kids sneaking out completely unaccounted for and afraid to turn to their parents when they need help getting out of whatever situation they weren’t supposed to be in.
I can’t help but wonder if the result is an erosion of trust. Parents believing that their kids are engaging in all the worst behavior they hear about kids engaging in and kids fearing that their parents will assume the worst if they open up about even remotely problematic behavior. Not that I think everything would be perfect otherwise, but I think that the widespread anxiety caused by all of this attitudes may be more damaging than the things that this paranoia prevents.

Note that I’m not talking about all the terrible things out there that happen, but specifically the ones that would happen but don’t because their parents are scared and are instilling that fear on their kids. It’s not that bad things never happen. Of course they do. Terrible things. I’m less sure about what the appropriate level of fear is and how the reasonableness of this fear has been distorted by media sensationalism.

Category: Courthouse, Theater

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11 Responses to Harbingers of Fear

  1. Peter says:

    It’s my impression that only a relatively small percentage of parents (mainly SWPL types) are really that paranoid about their children’s safety, unfortunately they end up changing the rules for everyone. Parents who are not so fearful are made to feel negligent if they don’t keep their children on absurdly short leashes.

  2. a_c says:

    Really, the sensational aspects of such shows isn’t even necessary for the effect you describe. People make systematic errors about risk; tell them a stor about a gruesome but low-probability death and they’ll take huge steps to avoid it, even while ignoring such things as car accidents. Below is a table of odds of dying of various accidents; compare for example to people’s fear of terrorism after 9/11.

  3. Brandon Berg says:

    John Walsh is the crusader. Adam Walsh was his son.

    Perhaps a program that better represents that today is To Catch a Predator, which sets up pedophiles.

    Actually, a more technically correct term would be hebephiles, since they usually pose as young adolescents.

    How much more dangerous is it for the types of crimes that haunted the Walsh’s for so long?

    The murder rate is about where it was in the mid ’60s, and lower than it was in the late ’60s. This may be due to improved medical technology, as other types of violent crime are higher (but still on the decline).

    Or the difference could be due to people reporting crimes that they would not have reported in the past. For example, rape and aggravated assault rates are much higher than they were even in the late ’60s, but I think that this is at least partly because these are generally taken more seriously than they once were.

  4. kevin says:


    I tend to agree wholeheartedly that things are better now than they’ve ever been, with one caveat. The Internet has created a market for child pornography that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Before the world wide web, pedophiles pretty much kept to themselves, as it was very difficult to find others who would not condemn their lifestyle. Nowadays, courtesy of the internet, they are able to converse with other pedophiles. Amoral entrepreneurs film movies in Costa Rica and Thailand and then using the magic of the internet to distribute their product in the U.S. Thus, an orphan growing up in Thailand might be worse off now than he or she would have been 20 years ago. But otherwise, I do think the world is a better, safer place.

    I won’t go into how we have litigious trial lawyers who clog our dockets with frivolous lawsuits to thank for the increase in the quality of our lives. But we do!

  5. trumwill says:


    You bring up a good point. It seems that sometimes there is a sort of “I care about my children, so I don’t let them ever leave the site of me, their other parent, or a private investigator we hire when we have to work!” and others are left to believe that if they don’t do these things, they’re being neglectful.

  6. trumwill says:


    After 9/11, I think that there was a fear that such attacks would become much more common. On 9/12, if told that there wouldn’t be any serious attacks on US soil in seven years, people would have thought that very impressive. I think that since that point fears have waned considerably. Otherwise, we’d have President Giuliani, most likely.

  7. trumwill says:


    Thanks for the corrections and the statistics. No doubt that things like rape are considered much more serious than they used to be and actually may be more frequent… though not as much so as the statistics would suggest. Sort of like how drunk driving is a lot less common than it was 35 years ago, but arrests are astronomically higher.

  8. trumwill says:


    To the extent that we’re talking about child pornography and kids in third-world havens for it, I would agree somewhat. On the other hand, I would be surprised if Thailand were in general a more threatening place than it otherwise would be if only because of the economic advancement of the country. I could be wrong about that. I don’t know much about Costa Rica, but my impression is that there hasn’t been much advancement and so they could be much worse off on the whole.

    But yeah, I am focusing on America. Whatever opportunities the Internet has provided would-be molesters, I don’t think that it’s so much changed the behavior of their would-be partners. Young girls and boys who value themselves don’t want to waste their time on such things. The kids most in danger are the kids that were most in danger before. I usually hate pat answers like this, but for the most part if you really have to be worried that your kid is going to get on a plane to visit some person on the Internet, the problems transcend the Internet.

    None of this is to say that law enforcement shouldn’t keep a watchful eye out.

  9. Peter says:

    It could be that the decline of real fears has caused parents to invent imaginary ones. If they no longer have to worry about their children getting deadly childhood diseases, or being obliterated by nuclear war with the USSR, they now have the “luxury” of worrying about (largely nonexistent) child molesters.

  10. Abel says:

    It seems like the entire tilt of the show is in the direction of providing justification and ammunition for every ounce of parental paranoia in existence. Seriously, it seems like the moral to the story, to the extent that there is one, is “Never, ever take your eyes off your child for a single instant!”

    This is why I stick to LOST.

  11. Gannon says:

    Hebephilia is a rather useless term, since hebephilia is part of the standard sexual orientation. Almost all men are sexualy attracted to young, FERTILE teen girls. Teen girls get pregnant, therefore it is a standard biological trait the wish to have sex with them. Chris Hansen is a coward who hopefully will get shot to death by a real man. The cops in the show are fat, ugly and complete cowards. Five stupid lazy pigs against one young man. And the morbidly obese women who pretend to be young teens on the internet are so ugly it is unbelievable.

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