By Michael M . . . Why does the public ignore the obvious unconstitutionality and overt cruelty of a sex offender registry that not only fails to accomplish its stated purpose – keeping our communities safer – but also condemns hundreds of thousands of registrants and their family members to a lifetime of humiliation, harassment, and the very real possibilities of unemployment, homelessness, and vigilantism? It would be easy to assume that this apathy and inattentiveness by the public is simply the result of hatred, bias, or ignorance, but there may be something else at work here, something that scientists have dubbed “inattentional blindness.”
In 1999, psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris conducted an experiment that became world famous and was the subject of their 2010 book entitled, “The Invisible Gorilla.” In their experiment, test subjects were shown a video of a basketball game after being asked to count the number of times the basketball is passed by players wearing white shirts. During the game, a person in a gorilla suit strolls to the center of the screen, pauses to beat on his chest, and then wanders off. After viewing the video, as many as 70% of the test subjects had no recollection whatsoever of a gorilla being in the video.
This study has become the cornerstone of various theories and further experimentation centered on the phenomenon which became known as “inattentional blindness.” The legal community took further notice of this topic when an undercover police officer named Kenny Conley was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 1995 for claiming that he did not see a fellow officer beating a suspect as he ran by in pursuit of another suspect. The jury simply did not believe that it was possible to miss something that obvious and convicted Officer Conley of lying to protect his colleague.
Simons, Chabris, and others decided to conduct a test to see if it was indeed possible that Officer Conley hadn’t seen the incident. They set up a similar scenario and asked test subjects to chase a suspect and count the number of times the suspect touched his head while running. The route took the test subjects right past an on-going fist-fight, yet afterwards, as many as 72% of the test subjects had no recollection of seeing the fight, which clearly had occurred right in front of them. As a result, Officer Conley was exonerated in July 2000. The results of this study were published in 2011 under the title, “You do not talk about Fight Club if you do not notice Fight Club: Inattentional blindness for a simulated real-world assault.”
The conclusion of this and other similar studies is rather straightforward and simple. Our brains pay attention to what we think is important or, equally significant, what others tell us is important. Everything else is subconsciously categorized as being irrelevant and is discarded before having any effect on cognition or thought. As a result, we are literally blind to it; we simply don’t see it.
The mainstream media tells us daily what we should be paying attention to. Their laser-like focus is invariably trained on sex offender registrants, prominent people labeled as “pedophiles,” and sex-traffickers. The constant drum-beat and warnings of “stranger danger” not only stoke our natural anxieties as parents but also blind us to the potential dangers that may exist right under our noses.
97% of the sexual assaults against juveniles are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. 59% are committed by acquaintances; 34% by family members. Less than 7% of sexual assaults against juveniles are committed by strangers, and an even smaller fraction of that number is attributable to known sex offenders. “Stranger danger” is largely a myth. Targeting registered sex offenders as your primary focus of fear and loathing is not only irrational, it is dangerous.
As for America’s “epidemic of missing children,” over 91% of them are runaways. 5% are the victims of family abduction. Less than 1% of the missing children were abducted by strangers, and most of those were not registrants. Again, the conspicuous focus on registered sex offenders makes the public blind to the real dangers that abound in our society.
Bu what about sex trafficking? Surely, that is an issue we can all agree needs more attention and aggressive prosecution. Yet, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an astonishing 88% of the children who end up being sex-trafficked became victims after going missing from government social services and foster homes! It isn’t some creepy guy at the park who is responsible for snatching children from their homes and turning them into chattel; it is the very same government that is fueling your unwarranted fears of “stranger danger” and those on sex offender registries.
Inattentional blindness causes the great majority of Americans to overlook the unconstitutionality and cruelty of a sex offender registry that makes our communities less safe by focusing your attention where it is least needed and accomplishes absolutely nothing. It is a classic case of misdirection, blinding you to the political incompetence, law enforcement impotence, and contemptible court decisions that are so pervasive in the realm of sexual offense laws and policies.
It’s time we “just said no” to the media hysterics and political grandstanding about sexual offenses and start paying attention to the (now) painfully obvious gorilla on the basketball court.
Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.