The Ordinary Complicity That Puts All Children At Risk

In 1961, Hannah Arendt coined a phrase that seems so very poignant to today’s headlines.  While covering Adolph Eichman’s war crimes tribunal in Jerusalem for The New Yorker, she subtitled her subsequent book, The Banality of Evil.  The work is a meditation on how ordinary people, doing very ordinary things, can participate in monstrously evil acts.  

The Miami Herald’s blockbuster report about the Jeffrey Epstein case reminds us of how profoundly true Arendt’s observations were.  Implicated in the Miami Herald’s reporting is former U.S. Attorney, and current Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta. But Epstein’s crimes, like so many human tragedies, go far beyond Acosta’s malfeasance and cowardice in the face of a wealthy child predator. For this outrageous pattern of child sexual abuse to work, many, many people had to be involved.  Drivers, schedulers, cleaning staff. All of them did their jobs. All of them turned a blind eye to what they knew was happening in front of them. “Not my problem” is the human reflex that turns many people into accomplices to tragedy.

Nor is today’s headline the only one. The outrages keep piling on.  The Catholic Church’s hierarchy has covered up thousands of cases of abuse by its clergy of both boys and girls across the globe.  In so many cases, this was done with a wink and a nod from prosecutors and law enforcement who were informed of what was going on, but were not interested in rocking the boat.  The USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar abused children under his care for many years, and while the rumors were everywhere, coaches failed to act. In 2011, Penn State administrators were discovered to have  covered up abuse by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.  The failing in all of these cases is that it is easier for society to point at the monster than to reflect on how our culture enables these monsters to grow and succeed.   

Beyond child trafficking, an even more bleak picture emerges from recent research showing the number of children whose rape and torture is captured in images (often called child pornography) and then shared in large numbers on the internet. How many people are involved in the creation and distribution of this material who say absolutely nothing?

We find again and again, in institutions we rely upon to protect and nurture children, a banality of evil.  An institution is in fact, a collection of individuals. And each of those individuals, whether at a Federal prosecutor’s office, or in a Catholic Bishop’s Diocese, or a child welfare agency, has to make that same decision to ignore the harm being done to children -- keep their heads in the sand, and pretend like nothing is wrong.    

Society’s disinterest in child welfare runs deeper still.  Who do we turn to, to provide witness and protection, to bring child molesters and child traffickers to justice?  More often than not, we place that responsibility on the victims themselves. For example, without the bravery of child trafficking survivors telling their stories while pursuing cases against enablers like Backpage.com, we would not be anywhere in Congress and the courts. Supporting survivors and giving them a platform must surely be one of the ways that our society can begin to undermine the silence that allows these systemic abuses to remain in place.  

But it cannot be the only step we take.  

Our nation is embarking on some soul-searching about sexual violence thanks to the #MeToo movement.  But we also need to have much more stocktaking and a concrete acknowledgment that it is not a child’s role to protect themselves from predators.  It is society’s job.

Our country is defined by our freedom and liberty, our Bill of Rights, our Constitution.  But in 1789, the rights of children were not under deliberation. Children belonged to parents, and little further consideration was given to their rights or legal status.  It was a very English, and property-driven view of childhood. That same 18th century view of children still echoes into our law today. And it is this view that makes it easier to live in a society where children are exploited, but for all of us to say “not my problem.”  

Ultimately, for our country to seriously tackle child sexual exploitation, we need a concrete acknowledgement that children have rights.  And our society has a responsibility to protect those rights. That responsibility is not just a parent’s job. It is not a child’s lawyer’s job nor is it just the teacher’s or school counselor’s.  It falls on all of us, every day. If we see a child being exploited, we have to find the fortitude to speak up. What a better world it would be if good, rather than evil, was the banal expectation for the lives of our children.