by dr ngo
When I was young I became aware of the theological debate over the "unforgivable sin." Did it exist – was anything irredeemable, beyond even Christ's mercy – and if so, what was it? The discussion on that was above my paygrade at the time, but it seemed to involve sinning (blaspheming?) against the Holy Spirit, whatever that meant. The crime may have been utter despair: if you are no longer capable of hope, rejecting even the possibility of belief (through the grace of the Holy Spirit), you cannot be saved. Or something like that; it was all pretty murky. Then I left the church, and abandoned this particular topic.
Meanwhile, however, I became aware that in the flesh-and-blood world of American law, politics, and public opinion, there were also crimes that were far worse than others, crimes that took their alleged perpetrators beyond the pale of the law. Not, as one might expect, murder, rape and arson; however terrible these were, even worthy of the death penalty, they were covered by the system. No, the great crime in those Cold War days was Communism, or association with it (past or present), or suspicion of it. "Reds," it was often argued, should not be granted freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from self-incrimination, etc., because of the heinousness of their beliefs and actions. Since they would, if they won, deny all freedoms to us, we were entitled to deny a few rights to them. (Yes, they could "take the Fifth Amendment," but that in itself might incur further sanctions, as well as public opprobrium and the likely loss of livelihood.)
Not for nothing was the anti-Communist crusade often referred to as a "witch hunt," since it echoed medieval and early modern campaigns against beings believed to be in league with the forces of darkness, whose wickedness could only be overcome by extraordinary procedures (the Inquisition, anyone? Witchfinder General?), suspending normal procedures in the interests of public safety.
In some jurisdictions any member of the Communist Party was required by law to register as an agent of a foreign government, since it was well-known, or at least well-believed, that they took their orders directly from Moscow. If they comprehensively repented, repudiated their ways, and ratted on their former colleagues, "Reds" might be redeemed, but unrepentant Reds were unforgivable.
(I don't have the energy to provide links to all the details of this horrific era, but they should not be hard to find.)
Flash forward half a century and things have changed. To be a communist nowadays is to be considered foolish rather than evil. But there are still two "sins" that are so terrible that they can deprive the (alleged) sinner of his/her rights. One, of course, is "terrorism," in the years since 2001. If accused, anyone might wind up in Guantanamo, with no right to a trial (much less a speedy one), no right to confront accusers, extremely compromised rights to counsel, and a host of other legal barbarities. And if that anyone is so careless as not to be an American, things can get even uglier. But we all know this, I trust. The rules, even the Bill of Rights, have to be suspended for our own protection. We Are At War With Terror.
Less extreme, but scarcely less unforgivable in today's America, is pedophilia. This has been demonized far above most other non-political crimes, and far beyond what it was when I was growing up. Don't get me wrong; it was widely disapproved of, even when not actually criminalized, though the 1957 marriage of Rock-&-Roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis to his 13-year old (third) cousin stretched the social fabric a little. It was also looked down on within criminal society, we were told; "child-molesters" had to be isolated from other prisoners so that they would not be attacked by ordinary drug pushers, murderers, and rapists.
Recently, however, the clamor over the "evil" of pedophilia has been greatly amped up, both in law and public opinion, far beyond what it used to be. Laws have been made much more stringent, including prohibitions on photos of under-aged models; parents have been arrested for posting pictures of their own unclothed children. TV programs ambushing suspected pedophiles appear in prime time. Public campaigns to be on guard against strange and dangerous men are everywhere ("Stranger Danger!"), and we are encouraged to report anyone suspicious to the authorities, just as we were told to watch our neighbors for signs of "Red" sympathy Back In The Day. Experts are wheeled out to claim that pedophilia – unlike any other kind of criminal activity or predilection – is essentially incurable, with abnormally high and possibly fictive recividism rates, so there is little or no hope of redemption. (Whereas there used to be a sellers' market for articulate ex-Communists, I'm aware of no such public acceptance of reformed pedophiles.)
Convicted sex offenders (not just pedophiles, but clearly these are the primary targets) after completion of their sentences are required to register with the police, and in some cases even to inform all their neighbors of their status, unlike any other criminals, AFAIK. (Can you imagine opening your front door to some guy who says, "I've just moved into the next block and I am required by law to tell you that I've got three convictions for breaking and entering, plus two more for grand theft auto, not to mention a handful of domestic abuse counts"?) There are restrictions on where they can live or even walk – not within specified distances of schools, etc. – and they are treated as perpetual perverts rather than as prospectively rehabilitated citizens. (I realize that life is not easy for any ex-cons in the USA, but the life of a certified "sex offender" seems to be worse than the rest.) Even their freedom of speech can be/has been curtailed; several states have attempted to bar them from Facebook. Extraordinary criminal penalties have been mooted, including "Chemical Castration" or worse. All this because they are, supposedly, so inherently evil that they are not entitled to the rights of "normal" Americans like you and me, ordinary housewives and car salesmen and hookers and Wall Street bankers. Just Think Of The Children!
Like "Communism," both "terrorism" and "pedophilia" have been loosely defined in the public imagination (and sometimes in law), so any harm that may have been done by those at the core can easily come to be associated with those on the periphery. The "fellow-traveller" is virtually as bad as the Comintern agent. The idealistic or misguided individual who contributes money to the wrong Middle Eastern cause is tarred with the same brush as the suicide bomber. The 16-year old who fondles his (or her) 13-year-old lover may be caught in the same web as the brutal penetrator of a 7-year old. By now we are all, I hope, familiar with draconian laws that may be applied to those guilty of little more than foolishness, and with the all-purpose labels – "Red," "terrorist," "pedophile" – that can permanently follow those accused of seemingly unforgivable crimes.
As with my post on TGAN, my interest here is not so much in the details, some of which I may have fumbled, but in the defining framework. Do we – does the USA – require an "unforgivable" crime in our public imaginary? (If so, what was this in the intervening years between the Red Scare and 9/11 – crack cocaine, perhaps?) Must there always be something that is so exceptionally bad that our rules don't apply, our basic freedoms can be repealed? Is there something in us that rebels against the concept of truly universal rights, insisting instead that we are forever in combat with forces so wicked we need to overcome our natural softness (empathy?) in favor of righteous anger? Are we thus eternally compelled to suspend our "liberal" practices and revert to the primordial war of Good (us) vs. some designated Evil (them)?
If it wasn't Communism, terrorism, or pedophilia, what would it be? What will we next project as "unforgivable," a pretext for abandoning the restraints of legality and civility, revoking the rights and ruining the reputations of those we choose to define as beyond the pale?