In the film Little Children, a convicted sex offender shows up at a town swimming pool on a hot summer's day. He has recently been released from prison after serving two years for exposing himself to a minor. Neighborhood vigilantes have plastered flyers with his mug shot all over town, hoping to drive him away. He is happily paddling about with a face mask and snorkel in a pool full of kids when he is suddenly recognized. Parents begin screaming for their children to get out of the pool. From the ensuing panic you would think a shark had been discovered swimming in the deep end. In no time at all the man is alone in the pool, with parents and children lined up shoulder-to-shoulder around the edge, staring in silent rebuke.
By federal law, sex offenders are required to register with state authorities, and certain types of personal information must be disclosed to the public. You can now go on the Internet and get the names, addresses, photographs and criminal records of sex offenders in your neighborhood. By entering my ZIP code on a national registry site I was able to determine there were seven living in my small New England town, with their locations indicated on a Google map, color-coded by type of offense. In some cases, the convictions were decades old. One offender was 70; another was in his late eighties.
As time goes on, the ranks of geriatric sex offenders is bound to increase, since there is effectively no such thing as an ex-offender for this type of crime. From the moment they return to the community, their whereabouts must always be made known to the police, and their movements are carefully circumscribed. In many jurisdictions, they are supposed to stay away from playgrounds, schools, churches and other places where children congregate. California voters recently approved a ballot initiative that requires the lifetime monitoring of sexual predators and the creation of so-called "predator free zones."
The rationale for these extraordinary measures is the high recidivism rate among sex offenders and the danger they pose to vulnerable populations. I suspect other factors may also be at work. Why, for example, are there not comparable restrictions on those released from prison after having beaten or even murdered a child? And why should convictions for consensual teenage sex or minor acts of public lewdness require lifetime scrutiny by law enforcement agencies and the public?
Sex crimes fall into that murky category of offenses that people ordinarily would never commit themselves but nevertheless feel guilty about. Sexual offenders must therefore bear not only their own guilt but also ours. On the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel, priests sacrificed a goat as a sin offering for the people and drove a second goat into the wilderness to carry away their guilt. The Hebrew word for this second goat was mistranslated in an early English Bible as "scapegoat," an abridgement of "escape goat." This term is now generally applied to those who are singled out for blame that might otherwise be apportioned more broadly.
Scapegoats enable us to maintain a safe distance from our own evil impulses by projecting them onto others, thereby maintaining the illusion that we have nothing in common with them. We are a bit like Groucho Marx, who didn't care to belong to any club that would accept people like him as members. In this case, the club is the human race.