How soon we forget.
It was only a few months ago when Cindy McCain, widow of former Arizona Sen. John McCain, reported what she thought was an instance of sex trafficking to the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport police. She made that report based on her lifetime working in early childhood education, her expert knowledge on sex trafficking and her keen observation skills.
Just kidding. She saw, and I quote, “a woman of a different ethnicity than the child, this little toddler she had, and something didn’t click.” That something that didn’t click was, and I’m guessing here, the knowledge that miscegenation laws haven’t been enforced in the United States in over fifty years. Unfortunately for Cindy, these days you can’t just look at a child’s skin hue, compare it to the nearest adult, and assume a toddler is being trafficked just because you think the two skin colors should match.
Okay, okay, you can. People like Cindy McCain do it all the time. That doesn’t mean you should, and that certainly doesn’t mean we should empower such ignorant nonsense.
This brings me to AB151, signed by Gov. Sisolak a couple weeks back, which promises to address childhood sex trafficking in Nevada.
To be clear out of the gate, “sex trafficking” has all of the makings of a good old-fashioned moral panic. There is not, in fact, an underground bordello filled with trafficked sex slaves on every block, something we’ve known for more than a decade now. Even underground bordellos filled with consensual participants, much less sex slaves, are rare enough to elicit local news coverage in Las Vegas, and if any place in the U.S. was likely to find underground bordellos boring, it would be Las Vegas. That we’re not seeing fresh news reports every week on uncovered local sex trafficking rings should be a clue that the problem is much larger in our minds than it is on our streets. Thinking about the issue halfway logically, most abusers don’t need to ship their victims in from out of state. Why bother trafficking victims when they’re raising them or getting them delivered to their places of work or worship?
Regardless, sex trafficking, especially of minors, is scary enough in theory such that certain people believe that something must be done. If imagining a monster under your bed encourages you to vacuum, dust, and clean under there, what’s the harm? Besides, in the process of looking into under-age sex trafficking, perhaps the same tools that will help fight that largely imaginary harm might also be used more productively to help fight ordinary child abuse or sexual abuse.
So, how does AB151 address sex trafficking?
One thing AB151 added was the ability for any person who has “reasonable cause” to believe a child is a commercially sexually exploited child to report that child to a child welfare agency, like Child Protective Services. That sounds sensible enough — until you remember two things: First, child welfare agencies would have to dedicate scarce resources to answering phone calls from clueless busybodies instead of taking care of children, and second, there are a lot of BBQ Beckys, Permit Pattys, Taco Truck Tammys, and yes, Cindy McCains in the world who immediately reach for the authorities whenever a person of color noticeably exists in their eyesight.
The last thing these people need is another taxpayer-funded number to call.
After 9/11, “If you see something, say something” has become something of a national motto. There’s some value to that sort of voluntary neighborhood-minded spirit — residents of Vallejo, California, for example, saw their police force repeatedly abusing their civil rights and did something about it. Far too often, however, it’s just community manipulation by police forces that want to justify unnecessary military hardware purchases and expansive surveillance powers by tapping into fears stoked from television news broadcasts and police procedurals.
On the opposite end of all of that hardware and power are our poorest and most vulnerable residents. The power of routine traffic stops, the most common police interaction for most of us, is frequently abused, as black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be pulled over and searched by police than white drivers, despite similar traffic law infringement rates. “Swatting” — the practice of reporting a fake violent crime to draw a SWAT raid to someone else’s home — has turned deadly as malicious actors use our police force’s “shoot first and ask conflicting questions while doing so” attitude toward crime to kill people.
Now, thanks to well-meaning but ill thought out legislation like AB151, anyone with a grudge can deploy the fully demonstrated violent weight of the state against anyone they “reasonably suspect” they can accuse of sex trafficking.
There are commendable parts of AB151. The bill also requires mandatory reporters, such as teachers and foster parents, to report sex trafficking if they witness it as part of their professional capacities, which is appropriate. If a mandatory reporter makes a malicious or clueless report, they’re potentially putting their career on the line. The rest of us, on the other hand, are not, and that’s where the problem lies.
The good news is, where Nevada is failing, other states are succeeding. Oregon, for example, recently passed a bill, House Bill 3216, that allows victims of racially motivated 911 calls to sue the Permit Pattys of the world. The actual wording of the bill isn’t quite as permissive as the press coverage of it might suggest — intent has to be proven, which isn’t trivial — but it not only helps send a message, it also applies some basic economics to the problem. Currently, the only people bearing the costs for a clueless or malicious call to the authorities are the taxpayers and the ones targeted for harassment. Measures like Oregon’s HB3216 correctly apply a modest cost to the source of such calls, which will hopefully cause fearful busybodies to second-guess their poor judgment before it gets someone shot or tears apart some poor, unsuspecting family.
At some point, we as a society will need to address our fears and acknowledge that real life is rarely as entertaining, or as dangerous, as our nightly news or police procedurals might suggest. Until then, we can refuse to weaponize our fears against the lives of the less fortunate and simply mind our own business.
David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.