Did Texas Go Too Far?

Bill Murchison

5/28/2008 12:01:00 AM - Bill Murchison

As Archie Bunker, in "All in the Family," used to affirm, "Nixon knows something I don't know." It was both a comical and a semilogical way of standing behind the President's much-berated Vietnam policies.

What about, in our own day, the state of Texas' seizure of 460-some-odd children in a polygamist bust, and their redistribution all over the state? Would the state's reasoning -- that the children, all of them, were in danger of abuse in their polygamous setting -- qualify for the same exemption from scrutiny that Archie accorded Nixon's war decisions?

Not according to the Texas appeals court that on May 22 pronounced the state's "protective" actions illegal, saying evidence of any threat the children faced was "legally and factually insufficient." In other words, the court thinks the state launched a preemptive strike for which it lacked authority. Children and mothers were rounded up for only the most generalized of purposes, and roughly dispersed without, perhaps, due cause.

The polygamist story has been all over the place, not excluding the front page of The New York Times and the networks. Numerous Archie Bunkers, I would guess, willing to give the state the benefit of the doubt in many things, are fast rethinking the matter. Maybe after all, in this case, the state went too far, good intentions notwithstanding.

Reflexive trust in the benevolence of the state's intentions (specifically those of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services) likely stems in part from the multifarious horror stories that have filled heads and minds in recent decades -- accounts of child abuse by adults, of the reduction of the innocent to objects of prey by the powerful. Priests, day-care center operators, youth workers and, yes, parents -- whom can you trust any more?

We seem to have overdosed on these stories -- some true but many constructed on flimsy evidence -- to the point that child-adult relationships now invite almost automatic suspicion. We appear to sometimes no longer trust adults in general to do right by children in general. The flip side of too much trust -- alas -- is too little, which could be where we are now.

Texas may have generalized too much, come down too soon, too hard, too fast without sorting out the facts. Or, maybe not. The point to notice is the overall discomfort the Texas experience causes. All these kids, these mothers -- does the hammer of government have to smash their lives without better evidence of pending danger and harm? We need to learn much, much more about "what Nixon knows."

The discussion returns us meanwhile, or should, to a familiar point: that family relationships and responsibilities -- hard as 21st century society works at redefining them -- are of the cultural essence. Worthy of state protection, yes, but worthier still of that tender cultivation and support only the family can give -- father to mother, mother to father, children to parents, parents to children. It's why the culture has to be so careful in dealing with those relationships: to acknowledge the danger of child abuse and at the same time to avoid freaking out over mere suspicion of adult misbehavior.

One reason for the "Nixon-knows" defense of Texas' intervention at the polygamist ranch is that Texas' famously conservative government isn't famous for overreaching. A second reason: the weirdness of polygamy, outlawed in this country for more than a century. Yet even good intentions sometimes go astray. And it's possible to believe that a polygamist isn't, you know, all there, without imagining him or her to be an abuser of children.

To take children from parents is hard and bad enough when there's unmistakable cause. When the cause is merely inferred, sniffed at, imperfectly traced to the source -- then the state goes too far.

Did the state go "too far" in this present notorious instance? What did "Nixon" know, and when did he know it? The Texas court of appeals invites us to urgent consideration of urgent questions -- these two just for starters.