The case for policing pornography

Posted: Sep 21, 2005 12:00 AM

On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the FBI was seeking agents to constitute a new "anti-obscenity" squad. "The new squad will divert eight agents, a supervisor and assorted support staff to gather evidence against 'manufacturers and purveyors' of pornography -- not the kind exploiting children, but the kind that depicts, and is marketed to, consenting adults," the Post stated. The FBI announced to prospective recruits that the mission was "one of the top priorities" of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, as well as FBI Director Robert Mueller.

 The "objective" reporter for the Washington Post, Barton Gellman, promptly sought out FBI agents to critique the new program. "I guess this means we've won the war on terror," said one FBI agent. "We must not need any more resources for espionage." "Honestly, most of the guys would have to recuse themselves," guffawed another. "It's a running joke among us," chuckled a national security analyst.

 The jocularity of these agents is rather disturbing. Back in 1986, Attorney General Edwin Meese III declared that "it is still the case that the production of pornographic materials is a practice and a business that remains substantially 'underground.'" Today, FBI agents joke about even bothering to police production and distribution of pornography.

 Of course, it is pure malarkey for FBI agents to complain that policing porn takes valuable resources from the war on terrorism. In the FBI context, every agent who polices public corruption or civil rights violation is an agent not working on terrorism. In a broader governmental context, the same could be said of welfare, health care and federal aid to the Katrina victims, to take some random examples. Every dollar spent by the federal government on causes other than terrorism takes a dollar away from fighting terrorism. Before we discuss cutting police power with regard to pornography, perhaps we should re-evaluate dedicating millions of federal dollars to building new bridges named after Robert Byrd.

 Plainly it is not governmental inefficiency these agents are worried about. They find the anti-pornography crowd disturbing because they believe that policing pornography violates fundamental rights. This has become the dominant view in our society: As long as what I do doesn't harm you personally, I have a right to do it. It's a silly view and a view rejected by law enforcement policies all over the country. Were we to truly recognize such a philosophy, we would have to legalize prostitution, drugs and suicide -- as well as the murder of homeless drifters with no family or friends. After all, if someone kills a homeless drifter, how does that affect anyone else? Consent should make no difference here -- that's an imposition of your values. Just because a murderer offends your moral sensibilities doesn't give you an excuse to impose your subjective values on a society.

 Such logic means destroying human communities. It is uncivilized, in the purest sense of the word. It makes us each selfish actors. The effects of our actions on others are irrelevant. No, you can't punch me in the nose, but if you choose to perpetrate genocide, and if none of my friends or family members is thrown into a mass grave, what business of mine is it? When everyone is an island, no one is safe. Actions cease to have consequences.

 If we are to maintain communities, someone's standards must govern. Those standards can either make it easier or more difficult for the traditionally moral to live their lives. The idea that no one's standards have to govern -- that everyone can do what he likes, when he likes -- inherently means tolerance for evil. Tolerance for evil means nourishment of evil. Nourishment of evil means growth of evil. Growth of evil is a direct affront to traditional morality.

 But perhaps as a community, we have decided that pornography is no longer an evil we wish to police. Perhaps we have accepted pornography as mainstream because we feel that it does not undermine fundamental values we wish to protect. Such an acceptance would be morally tragic. But then again, perhaps we have not reached the point where pornography is as legitimate as any other business. Elections mean something in this country, and the alleged defenders of traditional morality are in power. Until they are ousted, they have a responsibility to work on behalf of their constituency.