For days, the cable networks broadcast the sickening scene drawn from the security video of a Sarasota, Fla., carwash: A man in a mechanic's uniform grabs the wrist of a confused 11-year-old Carlie Brucia and leads her away.
After five gut-wrenching days came the news everyone feared. The police had found Carlie dead. The worst nightmare of parents and children everywhere had come true -- again.
In October 2002, the U.S. Justice Department published the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children. It discovered that the evil done to Carlie is all-too common in America.
The study defined a category it called "stereotypical kidnapping." It is: "A nonfamily abduction perpetrated by a slight acquaintance or stranger in which a child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom or abducted with intent to keep the child permanently, or killed."
The Justice Department concluded there were 115 kidnappings of this type in the United States in 1999. That's about one every three days, meaning that if every Carlie Brucia-type abduction were caught on videotape, cable networks could broadcast two a week. As it is, most go unreported nationally. It simply isn't big news anymore when a predator takes a kid.
In 40 percent of these 115 kidnappings, says Justice, the child was murdered. In another 4 percent, the child was never recovered. In nearly half, the child was sexually assaulted.
Sixteen percent happened in the child's own home or yard; 14 percent in a park or wooded area; 8 percent in a store, restaurant or mall; 2 percent in a school or daycare setting. In 40 percent of the cases, the child was taken off the street, or out of a car or other vehicle.
Parents instinctively know the battle zone: It's literally everywhere their children might go.
The Tampa Tribune interviewed Kathy Horton, a mother of three, who was one of Carlie's neighbors. Her reaction spoke for millions of other parents. "This is why you're not allowed out of my sight," she told her children, "because it only takes a second."
Why is this fear so widespread in America today? Because we don't kill killers often enough, or swiftly enough.
If our justice system worked the way it ought to work, we would not only execute Carlie's killer, we would do it quickly. We would do it soon enough so that a clear moral connection was made between his crime and the just and proportionate punishment meted out for it. We would say: We value Carlie's life, and the life of all our children, so greatly, that we can conceive of no other just punishment than death for the taking of that life.
But justice today is too often delayed and denied -- and not just for notorious murders.
"On more than one occasion, the drug-addicted man accused of abducting Carlie Brucia stood before a judge who could have given him maximum penalties of five years in prison," reported the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. "And time after time, Joseph P. Smith received second chances. He was put on probation and sent to treatment programs instead of jail. Smith's arrest record includes charges of false imprisonment, aggravated battery and carrying a concealed weapon."
Last year, he was arrested again on drug charges, and could have been sentenced to five years. But a judge gave him probation. That left him free the day Carlie died.
David Fussel, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers told the Herald-Tribune that even if Smith were sentenced to death now, it could, in the paper's words, "take 10 to 15 years for the sentence to be carried out, depending on the amount and complexity of the appeals."
That's not justice, that's a joke. It's the perverse, but predictable, punchline of a justice system that views its role as rehabilitating criminals and protecting them from themselves, rather than punishing criminals and protecting kids like Carlie Brucia.
Today, we resolutely make war on terrorists halfway round the world, but coddle habitual criminals who terrorize our hometowns. If we want to keep our children safe, if we want to reclaim the freedom of our neighborhoods, we will show some moral resolution here at home.
We can start by routinely and swiftly executing any kidnapper who kills one of our kids.