Around a decade ago on July 1st 2000, 8-year-old Sarah Payne was tragically murdered by a convicted sex offender, Roy Whiting. As Whiting was already on the Sex Offenders Register before he murdered young Sarah, a campaign was launched in the months after her death by her distraught parents, aiming to allow details of the Sex Offenders Register to be made available so parents will know if there is a convicted offender around the area in which their kids will be. This is a particularly difficult topic to write on; not least because I myself am in fact a year younger than what Sarah would be now.
At first you may be overwhelmed by sympathy for the Payne family, and that is totally understandable. However, I’m not sure this one horrific case can be used as a staple of how to secure communities. I have the utmost sympathy for Sarah’s parents but think that we should be wary of making any sweeping generalisations. What we have to remember is that tragic cases like this one are few and far between, the sheer amount of media coverage and public outcry proving that it is clearly something out of the ordinary. Paedophilia, child-assault and child-murder are not common occurrences. I fear, though, that a knee-jerk law such as this one will create an unhealthy climate of fear that, if anything will only increase the frequency of acts of such a nature (which the very law riles against).
When the authorities and mass media bombard the public with propaganda to suppose that an enemy exists on every street corner, the public seem to retreat into a state of mass panic. What I mean by this, for example, is that in the United States, it remains a constitutional right to be armed. They say this is for protection from the “enemy” yet that is quite a vague justification, don’t you think? I mean, we here in the United Kingdom are not a vastly armed populace, and being armed isn’t a constitutional right. Yet we have less crime and more secure neighbourhoods than the United States in proportion to both populations. Fear makes us live in panic and we all know that when people panic, they don’t tend to think and act coherently. It makes us go crazy sometimes, to be living in fear. It ends up churning out more enemies than what existed before. The idea of people “snapping” is always made worse, for example, when guns are in abundance as they won’t think twice before firing into anyone. In context, I am worried that instilling such an abstract fear of paedophiles will not make us any stronger as communities because we will start to speculate about any male who even smiles at a child. If the fear instilled is to a sizeable amount, then we could very well see an increase in paedophilia because of the culture of alienating unmarried, single men without any substance to go on.
Without trying to stray too far from the point, a law was introduced in the United States in 1994, known as “Megan’s Law”. On July 29, 1994 seven-year-old Megan Kanka was murdered by her neighbour and previously convicted sex offender, Jesse Timmendequas. “Megan’s Law” is similar to the proposed “Sarah’s Law” in that it requires convicted sex offenders to notify the local police department when they move into a neighbourhood. Whilst created under entirely understandable circumstances, official US records show that it has had no effect on community tenure (i.e., time living in community to first re-arrest), showed no clear effect in reducing sexual re-offences, had no effect on the type of sexual re-offence or first time sexual offence, and had no effect on reducing the number of victims of sexual offences. What’s more, official UK statistics show that 83% of attackers are known to their victims and 54% are partners or former partners. This shows that the “danger of strangers” is particularly weaker than we may have thought.
Lastly, and whilst I fully understand and sympathise with the bereaved for their horrific losses, in this case the parents of Sarah Payne, I cannot help but think this law will not help our communities but will only ostracise people even more than in the past. We must remember that the majority of our communities are safe places. We shouldn’t let paranoid parenting obstruct future generations from naturally enjoying the outdoors and other people’s company, and lest we forget the lyric uttered by rap artist Scroobius Pip:
“Thou shalt not think that any male over the age of 30 that plays with a child that is not their own is a paedophile. Some people are just nice.”