Megan's Precedent

Washington, D.C.

There are certain pusillanimous and weasel-tongued Congresscritters who actually pretend to imagine that such experiments in social engineering as Megan's Law are not only legitimate public policy but constitute an active improvement in civil life. This is the law that says if you are a convicted sex offender who has served your time you must still register your name and likeness with the local constabulary.

These guardians of public order, in contrast to their normal practice, then communicate this information to any concerned or inquiring citizen who happens to show up and ask. Instead of the pitiful scenes this doubtless causes in real life -- worried young mother consults bored and resentful police officer -- somehow, I can just imagine a Jonathan Winters bit where he's dressed up as Maudie Frickert and asks an astonishingly pleasant and helpful gendarme, "Can I see the pictures of the sex offenders? Reeeeeally? Addresses too? Oooh. Don't want any old ones though. Might wear them out."

Now, our particular land of the free and home of the brave has never had any trouble in publicly identifying undesirable social elements. If you were black, Hispanic, Asian, Southern European, Jewish, Arabic, homosexual or even, within living memory, Irish, you didn't need any yellow Stars of David or pink triangles sewn on your clothes for the police, bankers, school administrators, bill collectors, and petty functionaries of church, state and corporations to recognize you. The system of English accents cemented the caste divisions of Great Britain. Ethnic origins and sexual preferences did a similar separative service in America. And anyone who thinks this kind of thing is safely over and done with and consigned to the dustbin of history either hasn't been paying attention or doesn't want to know.

Comes now the misnamed Christian right whose leadership certainly, and much of whose membership probably, is busy stoking up their reward-fires for the next life. I can imagine the view from the verandah of heaven, looking down on the fried souls of Babdist real estate agents, like mounds of hot popcorn shrimp, jumping off the devil's griddle to be served to the decent underprivileged masses lined up behind St. Peter.

But that serene and pleasant vista is not yet part of my experience. Instead, we have things like Megan's Law intended to reassure the right that those evil prisoners who have somehow cheated the law, doubtless through the fault of weak liberal judges, into releasing them from incarceration, should still be subject to public examination and social ostracism. As if the dismal and inescapable penury of the post-incarcerated weren't enough.

Well, perhaps the anxious glare of neighborhood scrutiny is a sovereign remedy for more than one ill. Let's try it out in another field. Let's try it out in health care. Specifically, let's try it out on the tobacco industry.

That's a few more folks than we normally like to think. All of them guilty as hell of trying to kill people. Just because they figured out how to get paid for killing them, and because it doesn't automatically kill all of them, and takes quite awhile to kill the ones it does, and has moreover always been done this way, they imagine that killing people isn't their business. But it is. On a daily basis.

We can see the problem a lot clearer in defense spending because we've been thinking about public deprivation by soldiers since Lexington and Concord. But those in uniform, behind desks, engineering and selling and flying and building the implements of mass destruction can all console themselves with the thought, "Well, we only kill people when we have to and when we're ordered to by the whole nation through lawfully constituted authority."

On the other hand, tobacco farmers, lawyers, advertisers, advertising media, scientists, universities, lobbyists, known paid Congresscritters, and all their wives, children, girlfriends, boyfriends, brothers and sisters, and aged mothers are profiting from and are sustained by causing death on the installment plan every second.

The perniciousness of Megan's Law in a civil liberties sense is that, while parolees are still technically in custody, those who have served their sentences are theoretically as free as if they had never committed a crime. Unless the crime is sexual and child-related, in which case they have to report to the police and keep a current photo on file for public inspection. I don't remember seeing that footnote in the Constitution, myself, but maybe my eyesight isn't as good as that of the Reporklican majority in Congress.

A tobacco scientist may look like anyone else, have the same middle-class preoccupations, have innocent children and an infirm parent to look after. Yet, if a tobacco scientist, then a paid liar. (Not that that ought to be punishable in itself. Some have even taken so much leave of their senses as to claim that journalists are paid liars. This claim is, of course, only half right.) Similarly a tobacco farmer, frugally husbanding his federal crop allotments and price supports while loudly (and possibly correctly) proclaiming himself to be one of the few remaining American family farmers, may seem to be an innocuous enough figure. Yet, if a tobacco farmer, then a slow assassin.

Now lobbyists are special case. Some call for branding all of them, others for castration first. It's a difficult decision. Not whether to do something like that, but which one if not both. As it happens my neighborhood is crawling with lobbyists of one sort and another. I've met a lot of them, been friends with a few. And surprising as it seems, they are not all creeps and scumbags. Of course, I only saw Bob Strauss from across the room, so I could be wrong about that. Tobacco lobbyists include not only individual company shills, the Tobacco Institute, and the entire auto racing infrastructure, but the constellation of Libertarian conservative rights-for-corporations crowd.

The advertising industry, both those who create ads and those in whose pages or on whose airwaves or billboards or other signage it appears, must be firmly included in any tobacco malefactor identification program. Naturally this has to include the mainstream press. Certainly all employees of the major advertising agencies who have tobacco accounts must be included, as well as subsidiaries in the packaging, trucking, and retailing industries.

Children have to know if their parents got tainted money. People in school communities need to know what kind of dire social influences are being exerted by the offspring of social criminals. Because so many undesirables are involved as tobacco sellers, we need a technological answer here.

Badges? We don't need no stinking badges. Implants is the answer. Little satellite locator implants. Make 'em in the form of earrings that give off a green glow or something. Update the ancient lepers' bellringing and cry of "Unclean! Unclean!" Child rapists, tobacco sellers. All the same thing.

James McCarty Yeager writes from Washington, D.C.

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