There has been a great deal of media coverage on child pornography this past week: Articles by Jonathan Kay, John von Heyking, letters to the editor, and comments in Huffington Post after an article by Conrad Black that triggered more questions.
I decided to wait before I responded in the hope that the temperature of the rhetoric would drop. Emotion has its place, but at times, needs to be restrained.
There is a story in the Bible about Moses asking and then demanding of Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Pharaoh refuses over and over. Then we read a strange line. God hardens Pharaoh's heart. Why would God harden Pharaoh's heart rather than open his heart, his spirit to sympathy and empathy; to emotions that would weaken his resolve and lead him to release the Israelites? It doesn't make sense.
How are we to interpret this action? Perhaps God hardened Pharaoh's heart because He did not want him to make a decision based on his feelings. God did not want to give Pharaoh an out; the opportunity to change his mind by saying that he made his decision based on emotion and not critical thinking.
What can we learn from this?
Child pornography is heinous. No one will quibble with that statement. We learn from the story of Moses and Pharaoh that questions being raised by people like Conrad Black, Jonathan Kay, et al require us to suppress our emotions and implement critical thinking in order to respond objectively, fairly to abhorrent behaviour and crime.
Many decisions that we make have an easy right and wrong to them, a true black and white. But, there are times in our lives when the answers aren't so easy; when we are faced with difficult and painful moral and ethical dilemmas: Dilemmas that must be resolved through careful analysis, constructive criticism, not rash instinctual emotional responses that come from deep within our reptilian brain, the same part of the brain that leads to the repulsive behaviour of those we must judge.
We diminish our individual selves when we respond emotionally not rationally to horrible acts. We owe it to ourselves as citizens of a democratic country that is based on an ethical system that values the intrinsic value of human life to ask and answer questions that make us squeamish; make us want to run away. We owe it to our democratic principles not to attack those who ask the questions we don't like and offer solutions that we find upsetting. A policy of "Don't ask, don't answer" is not a policy.
Has the internet increased the amount of child pornography and the desire for it?
Are there statistics regarding the number of people who watch child pornography and then act out what they see?
Does watching child pornography keep one from acting on the desire? If the answer is yes, then what do we do? This would be a very difficult question to answer.
Are there therapies that can alleviate the drive to look at child pornography? If yes, then where and how would these therapies be delivered?
Are there any statistics regarding recidivism (looking at child pornography) after therapy?
Does the threat of jail time deter those who look at child pornography? If not, then what?
Can someone be cured of the need to look at child pornography? Can someone be cured of participating in the production of child pornography? If not, then what?
We have limited resources. What is the best use of our money to reduce the production of child pornography and the number of people who watch?
After what happened this past week, it could be very difficult to find professionals, like neuroscientists, neuroanatomists, psychiatrists, sociologists, members of the criminal justice system, ethicists, philosophers, people prepared to search for and speak truth for fear of being ostracized and relieved of duties. This is a dangerous place to be and must be viewed as anathema in a democratic country that reveres freedom.
There are without question some crimes so evil that only jail for life is the answer. But for those at the abyss, should we not find ways to keep them from falling over the edge? Should justice not include hope for rehabilitation and redemption? Are we not compelled as a culture bathed in the moral command to "care for the other" to decipher the difference between those who can be "saved" from those who cannot and then choose the appropriate treatment and punishment?
I think we sell ourselves short as a society if we do not talk about this issue, or any morally difficult issue, because of fear or repulsion. We are a democratic society whose morals, values and ethics are based on a fine balance between justice and mercy. Not only are we capable of coming to the table with our emotions in check as we think our way through the ramifications of the penalties that we impose on those who turn to child pornography; we must consider ourselves obligated.