Weaponizing social panic

By Michael McKay . . . What happens when social panics are weaponized in order to create and persecute a leper-class in our society? Nothing good, according to history. But if that is so, then why do we keep doing it?

Let’s examine some examples of how social panics have been weaponized in America by revisiting the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the “Red Scare” of the 1950s, and the “Gay Plague” in the 1980s. Perhaps  they can shed some light on our current period of social hysteria surrounding sex offenders.

Most of us have heard about the Salem Witch Trials, the sordid episode of 17th century American history in which 19 people were executed by hanging and over 200 people imprisoned. That period of American insanity followed a time of widespread panic in Europe, during which tens of thousands of people – mostly women – were accused of witchcraft and executed.

“King William’s War” against France (1689) had caused many political and war refugees to pour into the Salem, Massachusetts area. Those immigrants included Caribbean slaves and other foreigners from French-speaking regions. The first three women to be accused of witchcraft were Tituba, a Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman.  This set the tone for future social panics which appeal to deep-seated biases and hate targeting racial minorities, immigrants, poor people, and the homeless.

In 1692, authorities formed special investigative units and introduced new laws and rules of evidence which allowed for “spectral evidence” to be accepted in court. This 17th century “junk science” allowed  dreams to be used as evidence to indict and jail a 4-year old child named Dorothy Good after aggressive interrogations were used to elicit a “confession” from the child. Dorothy escaped execution but her mother did not, and the trauma of her imprisonment is said to have driven the child insane.

It wasn’t until the Governor’s own wife was accused of witchcraft in 1693 that the hysteria began to subside and was exposed as a weapon used to persecute political opponents and society’s “undesirables.”  Governor William Phips dissolved the special courts, disallowed spectral evidence, and pardoned dozens of surviving victims of persecution.

One of the catalysts for this hysteria was a resentment and fear of outsiders, refugees, and immigrants. The targets were initially poor, uneducated, and disenfranchised. But as the hysteria grew, it began to target even young children, well-connected, and the wealthy. Eventually, no one was safe from accusations of being in league with the devil. Special dispensations, junk science, new laws, and humiliation were all weaponized to slake the public’s thirst for scapegoats.

Fast forward some 260 years to the 1950s when, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Americans obsessed upon their fears of the Cold War. The Nazis had been soundly defeated, and America needed a new boogeyman upon which to focus. Once the Soviet Union conducted their first test of an atomic weapon in 1949, those fears exploded into a full-blown social panic known as the “Second Red Scare.”

President Dwight Eisenhower, responding to widespread fears that communists were undermining the nation, expanded the “loyalty” programs enacted during President Truman’s administration. Those policies supported the firing of suspected communists in government and removing the process for appeals in those cases. From 1951-1955, the FBI operated a secret program that targeted teachers, lawyers, activists, entertainers, labor unions, politicians, and others suspected of having communist leanings and worked to ensure they were fired from their jobs and blacklisted in their industries. In 1954, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project (which built the first American atomic bomb) was stripped of his security clearance amid rumors that he was a communist.

The Communist Control Act was passed in 1954 with practically no debate and the overwhelming support of both houses of Congress. It outlawed the communist party and stated that they were “not entitled to any of the rights, privileges, and immunities attendant upon legal bodies.” Many states enacted even more extreme laws to fight the “scourge of communism.” Michigan passed a law that punished “subversive propaganda” with life imprisonment. Tennessee went a step further, enacting the death penalty for “advocating the overthrow of the government” – which was understood to be a “basic tenet” of communism. Texas considered, but was ultimately unable to pass, a law demanding the death penalty simply for being a member of the Communist Party.

Cities took a similar tack. Los Angeles, CA banned communists from owning firearms. Birmingham, AL and Jacksonville, FL literally banned communists from being within their city limits. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was no help against the anti-communist hysteria, preferring to distance themselves as far as possible from anyone targeted during this period.  In 1940, long before any official government action, the organization went as far as to force out one of their founding members, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, for being suspected of being a communist.

The anti-communist hysteria was based upon three patently false assumptions.  First, there was a belief that every communist was – by definition – dedicated to the violent overthrow of the government. Second was the belief that communism was a form of socio-political leprosy and that simply being exposed to communism automatically made someone a communist. This leper analogy also meant that once a person was assumed to be a communist, they would always be a communist. There was no known “cure” and no allowances were made for the possibility that someone could change their mind, switch parties, or become “rehabilitated.” Third and finally, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI actively promoted the myth that communists were homosexuals and sexual deviants.  Ironically, recent history has revealed that J. Edgar Hoover was, himself, likely one of those so-called “sexual deviants.”

The striking parallels between the myths used to persecute suspected communists during the Red Scare and the current mythology of “striking and high” recidivism rates and the assumption of “incurability” being used to persecute people on sexual offense registries is thought-provoking, to say the least.

Move forward a generation in time to 1982, and you’ll see the acronym ”GRID” being discussed in the New York Times.  GRID stood for “Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency,” which is how many researchers were referring to what we now call Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV. In the early 80s, it was being framed primarily as a “gay cancer” or the “gay plague.”

In a press conference in 1982, President Ronald Reagan’s press spokesman Larry Speaks was asked by reporter Lester Kinsolving about the outbreak which, by that time had killed almost 1000 people:

Lester Kinsolving:  Does the President have any reaction to the announcement by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta that A-I-D-S is now an epidemic in over 600 cases?”

Larry Speakes (appearing dumbfounded): “A-I-D-S? I haven’t got anything on it.”

Lester Kinsolving: “It’s known as gay plague.” (The press pool dissolves into laughter.) “No, it is. It’s a pretty serious thing, one in every three people that get this have died, and I wonder if the President is aware of this?”

Larry Speakes: “I don’t have it,” he says, “Do you?” (The press pool again breaks into laughter.)

It wasn’t long before the outbreak was being blamed on promiscuity and drug use among the gay population. The Center for Disease Control’s incredible claim that gay men had a median number of 1160 lifetime sex partners obviously did nothing to dispel that notion. Later, once it became widely reported that the primary mode of HIV transmission worldwide was unprotected heterosexual sex, the narrative began to shift from blaming homosexuals to blaming heterosexual promiscuity among the younger generation, which was then exploited to advance an “abstinence only” political agenda.

People infected with HIV were often treated like lepers, whether or not they developed AIDS. Many people not only refused to risk any sort of physical contact with those infected but also denied them employment, housing, or even emergency medical care. It was relatively common to hear the AIDS epidemic framed as a form of divine retribution for immoral behavior. Many pontificated that anyone who was suffering from the effects of HIV undoubtedly deserved whatever they got. Unfortunately, even President Reagan adopted that stance  in 1987 when he addressed the issue for the first time by remarking, “After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?”

By 2016, there were approximately 36.7 million people worldwide with AIDS, with over a million deaths occurring each year. Approximately 20% of the people infected with HIV in the United States are unaware that they have it. By ignoring the problem, joking about the problem, pandering to the uninformed, and stigmatizing or criminalizing it for nearly 40 years, the government has allowed HIV/AIDS to evolve from an obscure, relatively rare sub-Saharan disease to a global pandemic.

There are more than a few parallels between the so-called “gay plague” of the 80s and 90s and our current era of rampant sex offender hysteria. Both feature the creation of an entire class of social lepers who are routinely denied housing, employment, or medical care because of their status. Both eras begat the moral assumption that whatever horrors “those people” may be experiencing, they must somehow be deserving of it because of their perversity. And of course, both have revealed a disturbing trend of leveling insults or making jokes at the expense of this leper class.  We’ve literally graduated from “Those pants are so gay!” to “Do these glasses make me look like a sex offender?” Neither is a good look on society.

Are we, as a society, incapable of learning from our past mistakes? We certainly seem more than willing to keep making the same timeworn mistakes again and again, failing even to recognize in each instance that we are doing so. Is it something in our DNA as a species? Are we hard-wired to need scapegoats and boogeymen?

If so, then simply changing our harmful and ineffective sexual offense laws may turn out to be just one small step at the beginning of a long and painful journey for humanity.

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Michael McKay

Michael McKay is NARSOL's Director of Marketing and a frequent contributor of articles to the NARSOL website. He is the published author of several non-fiction books, contributing editor & board member at LifeTimes Magazine, the executive editor of The Registry Report, and founding host of Registry Report Radio on BlogTalkRadio.

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    • #52241 Reply

      Weaponizing panic as you put it is exacerbated via social media and other internet bradcasts. Fake news and yellow journalism is alive and well. Essentially every story is click bait. What ever sells.

    • #52271 Reply

      Wow Michael I’m still wondering if your the H.G. Wells of Sifi or a treckee, or the Eger Allen Poe of the mask of the red death, but all that aside, what govornment said there is nothing to fear but fear itself? Good ole FDR.

      Today its a whole different ball game or is it. All those events were allowed to occure that you mention in your article for a reason. Actually a more focused vision of the sex offender situation should be established. Is man killing man with this registry or invading one’s conscience. Is government, police force, using thir sword for their own protection or their own benefit. I wonder in many cases who is pretecting who. We can all talk about recidivisim rates with this sex offense thing that all are going thru but its really about keeping the faith.

      I wonder who has faith today, who has trust today or for that matter truth. One wonders who is a christian today or just goes thru the motions of their saving faith. Was Billy Joel right way back when or did he stumble with his ways.
      One wonders if government causes people to stumble or causing panic. Are these ministers of justice tempting and instilling others with this deceptive view in many of these scenerio’s? Is the sex offenders opportunity to speak up void in some ways or does truth over shadow fake news?

      I wonder what government is keeping their own faith or cheating on their tax return with their clout. This whole ordeal of the sex offender in so many ways burns people up so where is true justice or do we still call a spade a shovel.

    • #52275 Reply
      Michael McKay
      Michael McKay

      Wow, I’ve never been compared to HG Wells or Edgar Allen Poe before, but…… ummm, thanks? LOL

    • #52292 Reply
      Derek Logue of OnceFallen.com

      It is interesting you brought up the views of homosexuals in the 1980s.

      Gene Abel’s “Self-Reported Sex Crimes of Non-Incarcerated Paraphiliacs” (1986) discussed PARAPHILIAS, not to be confused with pedophilia. While Abel was studying the sexual behaviors of people he called “sex offenders,” he studied a number of behaviors that were not criminal but not generally accepted by the general public, which notably included “homosexuality.” (It also covered transsexualism, transvestisism, fetishism, urolagnia, corprophilia, and arousal to odors, all behaviors mostly frowned upon but not criminal in nature in the 1980s or even today.) This study is abused quite often by victim industry advocates but the study wasn’t just about sex crimes, but about sexuality in general, and added actions that give people the impression that “sex offenders” are highly deviant people. Obvious this attitude persists today. This report would be less impactful if the big numbers created by adding these non-crimes were taken out.

    • #52303 Reply

      Michel you may have something their in this conparison thing. This sex scare tends to lead on the psyco movement. Course I don’t hink a lot of us would look good in 3D elton John glasses.

      The psychoanalyst movenment of the fifties and manulipation sometimes one wonders who’s controlling who today. Did all this start with man being power hungry and now look were its gotten in this era of life with the sex offender ordeal. I really wonder if Sigmund freud was really a genius or a lot of propraganda in this movement of the mind anaylist or was Edward Bernays a manulaplator also. One could talk about automatons in the late 50’s which didn’t lead to much study by the CIA. Sure we could all go back to how this whole sex registry ordeal or idea came about but in the long run its still man manulipating ones conscience. I would say LSD and shock therspy is out of the question today. Michael I still believe it all comes down to being manulipated in a lot of this sex registry skullduggery. We’ve all heard the ole saying, you are what you eat.

      I believe we all must remember who created the conscience and soul and who is violating this with what measures one come up with. I have to still say who is protecting who in a lot of this ordeal or who is doing this proganda to all these people who get wrapped up in all this whether by callousness or being overthrown by this stimuli of these sexual encounters.

      Are police the devil working ovetime or do they not put their pants on the same as anybody else. One wonders who is wicked and who is evil today in this psychological game of cat and mouse. Where is the discernment in any of this. Were s the logical.

    • #52379 Reply

      Could a database be considered a weapon against persons? Yes.

    • #53549 Reply

      Hello i found some interesting information on the Doj they have a report stating recidivism rates are 3.5% and yet don’t say anything about but yet it is on there website for anyone to see & it’s on Smart.gov website almost identical report 3.5% I don’t understand why then is the registry is still up n running?

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