It's hard not to relish the spectacle of the Republicans' hoist on Mark Foley's quivering petard. But the pleasure wanes as the sanctimony rises - a chorus of politicians, pundits and reporters all singing the words child protection.
The GOP knew for years that the six-term Florida congressman was "funny" with the pages. They said nothing, except for the occasional, sotto voce warning to steer clear of the creep. Their first priority was to protect their own asses - not, as Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi put it, "to protect the children in their trust."
In response, Foley has played his own childhood-innocence card. He claims a priest molested him, propelling him into a life of homosexual pedophilia. At this writing, the congressman has announced he'd reveal the miscreant's name - "part of the healing process," his lawyer notes, along with Foley's treatment for alcoholism.
Hours later, the priest, one Anthony Merciera, came forward, contending he and the boy went skinny-dipping together, as "brothers" - nothing more. Another former altar boy joined in, revealing that he and Foley used to hang out at the apartment of the priest, who let them drink and smoke. The priest admits he might have been disinhibited by alcohol problems of his own . . . and the saga continues.
Let us begin by granting the obvious: Like the party to which he belongs, this particular member from Florida is a slime-bucket of obfuscation and hypocrisy.
But does anybody really think the Foley Affair is about protecting children? Is child the correct term for the subspecies of preternaturally ambitious 16- and 17-year-old humans who claw their way to Washington in order to learn how to become Dennis Hastert or Hillary Clinton; who, according to those formerly in their places, also take advantage of their sojourn in Our Nation's Capital to par-tay?
Much blame for the complete meaning-ectomy of the words child and protection must be assigned to the likes of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's caucuses; former House Co-Chair Mark Foley was one of their most zealous leaders. Over the years, these folks have built a fortress of "child-protective" crime legislation that has steadily increased the age at which a person is legally considered a child - from 12 to 18, for instance, in child-pornography law. The caucuses have worked with the National Center on Missing and Exploited Children, an organization known for tossing around statistics on "child abductions" that fail to note that almost all the kids who go missing are actually teenage runaways - or teenage "throwaways" whose parents have kicked them out.
Such advocates also have a penchant for implying, incorrectly, that crimes against children tend to be sexual. As we know well, sex panics are a great way to sell Internet censorship, mandatory minima and other politically profitable law-and-order legislation. A triumphal moment for these tactics, and for Foley himself, came this summer, just months before the emails hit the fan. The Adam Walsh Child Protection Act of 2006 greatly expands the federal sex-offender registry and compels states to expand theirs. It also encourages civil commitment with new grants; institutes big, vague new areas of Internet surveillance; and hardens the penalties for sex crimes against children to include everything short of extraordinary rendition.
An interesting footnote is the law's name, inscribed "in recognition of John and Revé Walsh on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Adam Walsh's abduction and murder." John Walsh owned a hotel management business in Hollywood, Florida, in 1981 when his 6-year-old son was killed. His PR says the father "turned his grief" into a full-time fight for child victims. A less generous way of putting it is that Walsh launched a career by spreading the rumor - most explicitly in his book Tears of Rage - that his son's murderer was a pedophile. The crusade spurred the creation of the missing-and-exploited children's center, and landed Walsh the job of hosting Fox TV's "America's Most Wanted." From that exalted position he has cultivated friends in high places, including Mark Foley, to push for tougher sex-offender laws.
There's a little problem, however. According to detectives who worked on the still-unsolved case, there has never been either suspicion or evidence of sex in Adam's murder.
But never mind. There is little evidence that most of the provisions of HR 4472 do anything to prevent crimes against children.
In fact, some of the provisions are likely to hurt them.
For purposes of protection, the law defines a minor as anyone under the age of 18. In some states, though, anyone under the age of consent who has sex with anyone else under the age of consent is committing a crime. On several states' sex-offender registry websites you can see the smooth faces of prepubescent "sex offenders." In fact, the Adam Walsh Act now requires the registration of juveniles as young as 14 who have ever been convicted or adjudicated even for consensual sexual activity with another minor under the age of 13. These "offenders" must produce DNA samples, submit to electronic monitoring and, if the violation was a second offense or the partner was younger than 12, remain registered and monitored for life.
Meanwhile, back in the House, Ethics Committee members are trying to decide if Maf54 broke the law by IMing the pages (in some cases with mutual enjoyment) about masturbation and boxer shorts. Under his own law, which criminalizes "the use of the Internet to facilitate or commit a crime against a minor," he might be a felon. If he had actual sex with them, however - which he denies - he could be acting within the law. The age of consent in Washington, D.C., is 16.
As I said, the words child and protection lose all meaning.
Still, Mark Foley is no child molester - and not just because of those consent-implying lols from some of his IM buddies. After all, for each cheerful participant, there were God-knows-how-many who deleted the drooly messages in disgust, or reported Foley to authorities they thought would do something about it.
No, Foley is something far less press-worthy: He is a sexual harasser - a person who uses his position of power in a workplace or other institution to extract sexual favors from a subordinate.
Why don't we call him that?
One reason, no doubt, is that Nancy Pelosi and the other Democratic women know sexual harassment is not taken seriously in Washington. They remember Anita Hill. If a Supreme Court nominee could get away with it, who'd care about a piss-ant Florida rep?
More important, though, calling Foley's misconduct sexual harassment would be saying something about the young people on whom he hit.
The object of sexual harassment is assumed to be an adult. She has a sex life, but does not want to share it with the line foreman or the 15 other men in her department. If she has not made her objections clear, it's because she fears losing a raise or a job or becoming the victim of further retribution, including violence.
Harassment is a psychological or physical trespass on the sexual privacy and equality of a citizen-worker. Molestation, on the other hand, is a theft of the alleged sexual innocence of a child.
Sexual harassment is a violation of rights. By law and custom, children have no rights, least of all sexual ones.
This Congress has just passed the billion-dollar mark in appropriations for abstinence-only education. Its message: that minors are not - and should not be - sexual. While more than one congressional member has surely been piqued by the sexual-object possibilities of the nubile messengers in their midst, they are ideologically unable to view these youngsters as sexual subjects - least of all, as willing gay sexual subjects.
If they - or we - can't recognize teenagers' right to say yes, we have little choice but to "protect" them by saying no on their behalf, whether they want us to or not.
Not that I give a fig for Mark Foley. But he is one more casualty of the war on teen sexuality. The public has made a psychopath of a man who is at best a jerk and a hypocrite and, at worse, the perpetrator of the serious crime of sexual harassment.
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