Cindy McCain and the moral panic over human trafficking
Cindy McCain has spent years trying to make the public aware of the dangers of human trafficking. Recently, though, she seems to have given the public all the information they need to remain wary of her “see something, say something” approach. On an Arizona radio show, she shared a personal anecdote, trying to demonstrate how people can help protect victims. McCain said that recently, at an airport in Phoenix, she saw something that she said “looked odd,” explaining, “it was a woman of a different ethnicity than the child, this little toddler she had. Something didn’t click with me. I tell people to trust your gut. I went over to the police and told them what I thought. They went over and questioned her and, by God, she was trafficking that kid.” But she wasn’t. The Phoenix Police Department said no trafficking had occurred. [Sarah Mervosh / New York Times]
If nothing else, this incident might indicate that “trust your gut” is terrible advice. Preshuslee Thompson of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University notes McCain’s emphasis on ethnicities as a factor in her judgment: “Our implicit biases are processed in the unconscious part of our mind,” said Thompson, who conducts training on implicit bias. “So a lot of times you find that you have implicit biases that don’t align with your lived experience.” If something makes you feel suspicious, “you have to have that moment of self-reflection,” Thompson said. “Really ask yourself: ‘Why am I feeling this way?’” [Sarah Mervosh / New York Times]
This is not the first Super Bowl season when McCain publicized her cause by raising dubious alarm bells. In 2014, McCain told Politico that she was determined to use the Super Bowl as a “catalyst” to call attention to sex trafficking. “A lot of people either misunderstand it or don’t know about it, don’t believe it exists—‘it exists overseas.’ So the beginning of this of course is educating people about it.” [Lucy McCalmont / Politico]
The same year, McCain stood next to two politicians announcing a law enforcement crackdown and declared that the Super Bowl is “the largest human-trafficking event on the planet.” But no data actually support “the notion that increased sex trafficking accompanies the Super Bowl,” Kate Mogulescu, a public defender who ran a program representing most people arrested on prostitution charges in New York City, wrote in the New York Times. “Even with this lack of evidence, the myth has taken hold through sheer force of repetition, playing on desires to rescue trafficking victims and appear tough on crime. … The actual number of traffickers investigated or prosecuted hovers around zero.” [Kate Mogulescu / New York Times]
Human trafficking now falls squarely in the realm of “moral panic,” which is defined by the Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences as a “panic or overreaction to forms of deviance or wrongdoing believed to be threats to the moral order. Moral panics are usually framed by the media and led by community leaders or groups intent on changing laws or practices.” They “gather converts because they touch on people’s fears and because they also use specific events or problems as symbols of what many feel to represent ‘all that is wrong with the nation.’” Other examples include the “satanic panic,” the war on drugs, and child abduction by pedophiles.
In a 2008 article, Professors Elizabeth Scott and Laurence Steinberg described legal changes that “transformed juvenile crime regulation from a system that viewed most youth crime as the product of immaturity into one that is ready to hold many youths to the standard of accountability imposed on adults.” They argue that these changes were “undertaken in an atmosphere of moral panic, with little deliberation about consequences and costs.” [Elizabeth S. Scott and Laurence Steinberg / Columbia Public Law Research Paper]
More recently, Professor Babe Howell wrote that “the NYPD has manipulated and exaggerated the threat of gang crime in order to generate a ‘moral panic’ and shore up support for intensive and unjustified policing and surveillance of youth of color based on non-criminal conduct.” The NYPD has shifted away from broken windows and stop and frisk, “increasingly relying on an overblown narrative of gang and crew violence as a justification to police non-criminal conduct—a narrative that allows law enforcement to avoid oversight and transparency.” [Babe Howell / Denver Criminal Law Review]
After McCain’s fear was revealed to be a false alarm, she responded by tweet, commending the police for their diligence and adding: “I apologize if anything else I have said on this matter distracts from ‘if you see something, say something.’” Elaine Andino, a spokesperson for an anti-trafficking group, said that police have the same message. “We have been told repeatedly, we would rather people call and report human trafficking incidents and be wrong 100 times on the off chance that they are right one time.” [Sarah Mervosh / New York Times] But this attitude assumes that there are only costs associated with failures to act upon actual incidents of trafficking. McCain and the police appear blind to the costs of false alarms.
These false positives are “actively harmful” because, when they lead to police crackdowns, they create “bad policy,” writes Mogulescu. In the days leading up to the 2014 Super Bowl, “local law enforcement dedicated tremendous resources” to making dozens of sex work arrests. Aggressive arrest practices can have devastating consequences for both trafficked and nontrafficked people engaging in sex work. Many have survived trauma, and “turning them into defendants and pushing them through the criminal justice system contradicts any claim of assistance.” Often, she notes, increases in arrests are not indications of an increase in criminal activity, “but rather of an increase in policing.” [Kate Mogulescu / New York Times] Even an encounter with police that does not result in arrest can be traumatic and degrading, and it can quickly escalate into violence. “When the discussion is dominated by fear-mongering, we fail to meaningfully address the actual causes of human trafficking,” Mogulescu adds. The same can be said of “super predators” and crack cocaine. The sooner we learn this lesson, the better.