Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Seven Months

The lead story across the Boston media this week is the arrest of Brian O'Hare, a State Police sergeant who has been charged with coercing a minor to engage in sex. O'Hare's wife has kicked him out of the house, and a judge has ordered him to stay away from his two children. If convicted, O'Hare faces a mandatory minimum of five years in prison.

He was caught in an FBI sting by Jeremy Morrissey, an agent who pretended to be a 14-year-old boy in AOL chatrooms. Morrissey spent seven months talking to O'Hare before O'Hare proposed a meeting.

I know. "Protect the children." I'm sure most Americans feel that Morrissey (identified in the newspaper as an "undercover agent") was doing good work. But you're wrong. The Dangerous Internet™ is a myth. There's been a lot of paranoia about MySpace recently, but consider this: Statistically, your child is more likely to be kidnapped or raped by virtue of living in the state of California than by using MySpace.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are no legions of predators stalking the internet for victims. The vast majority of missing children are runaways or family abductions, which means that Special Agent Morrissey just spent seven months fighting a threat that barely exists. Ask the FBI how many agents they currently have assigned to open cases of verified abductions from five years ago. Hell, ask them whether they're actively looking for kids who were kidnapped last year. They're not.

For that matter, since we're embroiled in a national debate about port security, consider that roughly 26,000 containers arrived in US ports today. Fewer than 1 in 20 were inspected. ("Inspected," by the way, doesn't mean "searched.") Add to that the Mexican border: More than a million people cross illegally every year, and reports of violent clashes are increasing. There are tasks that need the FBI's attention. This isn't one of them.

Furthermore: Nonfamily abductions of children are rare; but when they occur, they're overwhelmingly committed by repeat offenders, not police veterans with decorated military records. I don't know whether Sergeant O'Hare would ever have harmed a child if left to his own devices. Maybe. But there are plenty of repeat offenders out there, and I do know that statistically, it's more likely that Special Agent Morrissey would have saved a child from harm if he had spent seven months capturing escaped fugitives and parole jumpers.

I don't condone O'Hare's actions. He seems to be guilty. But this country is becoming more suspicious every day, and I wonder about the wisdom of the FBI targeting would-be (or might-be) offenders. There's a lot of work to be done, and I don't think this is a good use of resources. Moreover, I think it's a dangerous trend, setting out to make criminals out of citizens. You sell a guy a bag of oregano and tell him it's pot; yes, he's guilty of attempted possession. But if the guy's never bought an ounce of weed in his life, I wonder whether you just helped or harmed society.


At March 21, 2006 2:14 PM, Blogger Stephen said...

I don't know why this column is suddenly getting dozens of hits from Minnesota (anyone want to clue me in?), but as long as y'all are reading you might consider this: Yesterday, the FBI's New York City office admitted that nearly 25% of its agents have been forced to work without email accounts due to budget cuts. Compare: In Boston, a special agent can spend seven months surfing the internet, on the clock; yet in New York City — Ground Zero — the FBI can't afford to equip its staff with email.

Poor allocation of resources, if you ask me.


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