The Crime of Looking at Pictures

Every week, it seems, the local paper reports some guy arrested for downloading child porn. It’s disgusting.

It’s disgusting that anyone could get pleasure from images of child abuse. I just don’t get it. But I understand that human sexuality is very complex and manifests itself very differently in different people. Male homosexual attraction is similarly alien to my own make-up, yet I know that for gays, the brain works differently.

But what really disgusts me most about all these child porn busts is government poking around in people’s computers looking for it.

Now, making child porn is properly criminal because it harms the children portrayed (if they aren’t animated or computer generated). And presumably many people looking at it have desires to actually do things to children. If they do the deeds, by all means punish that. But none of that requires government to monitor computers checking what pictures people view.

The values at stake are very important. It’s not just a matter of the right to look at dirty pictures. It’s the broader principle of freedom to read or see or hear what you choose, and to enjoy a sphere of privacy upon which your neighbors, or authorities, may not intrude. These values are crucial for the kind of society we cherish, and only for the most compelling purposes should we tolerate their being overridden.

You might think this is libertarian extremism. But let’s look to first principles. The reason we sign up as members of society and submit to rule of law is to protect ourselves from each other, to resolve the Hobbesian trap of the “war of all against all.” You give up the freedom to harm another in exchange for others giving up freedom to harm you. But we don’t join society to empower busybodies to poke their noses into our private lives looking for things they disapprove of.

Some say if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide or fear from government. That’s not the point. Civil liberties are not to protect wrongdoers, but to protect everyone. And if the state can invade your privacy looking for child porn, what else might it target at the behest of some sanctimonious busybody?

Another recent case involved Scott Ritter, former UN weapons inspector and Iraq War critic. I didn’t like him. But I didn’t like what happened to him either. He was busted for acting lewdly, in an internet chat room, toward what he thought was a teenaged girl, but was actually a cop posing as one.

I don’t want a Saudi style morality police. It’s totally disgusting that we pay cops to spend their time having sleazy online conversations to entrap people like Ritter, or child porn lovers, or to hang out in men’s rooms to seduce vulnerable people into tacky behavior. Such activity demeans the officers who engage in it, and the public institutions that organize it. This soils our society itself, more than anything anybody does alone in privacy.

If police authorities want to target child porn, let them devote their efforts and resources to the makers of it. Poking into private computers and trying to entrap victims can only divert resources from that effort – not to mention the pursuit of all other types of crimes that harm real people.

POSTSCRIPT Added 5/12: The other day, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that merely viewing pictures, without taking possession by downloading etc., is not a crime, at least under state law. Some state legislators promptly introduced a bill to close this “loophole.”

2 Responses to “The Crime of Looking at Pictures”

  1. Chris Cohen Says:

    Those who view child pornography are complicit in child abuse. Simple. If they didn’t spend money on it, it wouldn’t enable the pornographers to abuse children. While it is true that the state must respect our civil liberties, calling looking at child pornography merely “looking at pictures” ignores the larger social ills that child pornography causes.

  2. Tiglath Philizar Says:

    David Finkelhor, a sociologist who directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, sees the moral weight of the law , but not the empirical proof. “The evidence doesn’t yet tell us to what extent the experience of being a pornography victim aggravates the experience of the sexual abuse itself. How do you separate it out?”. What the law says is equivalent to saying voodoo is real. No one has to actually commit a crime they just have a look at an image or have a thought and they are guilty of the crime. A person that observes a digital image that has no form or life then give those images or objects a force a power to indwell within it is practicing voo-doo. To make things easy images unseen in a computer file that have nor hold no power to communicate are brought into the courtroom nevertheless. Before long, the people are ensnared by the compulsion to give power to a thing of their own definition.

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