It's easy, too easy, to join those taking clubs to the D.C. City Council, because twice in recent days, it has honored us with two legislative disasters -- the estate tax and now, from the judiciary committee, legalized sex between consenting 12-year-olds. But there is a deeper question here, and that is the lack of leadership and of caring being shown by some of the people we've elected to make our laws.
Washington has grown in political maturity in the past 10 years, with negotiations under way to take more control from the federal government and statehood a possibility for the future. As the city gains new authority to determine its political destiny. I hope more heavyweights with courage will be attracted to the political scene. For as much as anything, the recent faux pas reflect the leadership bankruptcy of some of our current elected officials.
In the case of the kid sex issue, the adult population's lack of social responsibility toward our children is a twin consideration with this lack of leadership. Although the council committee may feel it has acted in a socially responsible way in decriminalizing sexual relations between consenting children, its unanimous recommendation was clearly offensive to a large part of the city.
The problem with the proposal is the signal such legislation send to the community. I'm not arguing that the committee either is advocating sex between younger and younger kids or wants the police to take a law-and-order approach and rush out to check the back seats and alleys for prepubescent Lolitas. But the community reads the legislation as a signal as a lack of caring about children and a lack of principle that will have the effect of advancing promiscuity.
Mayor Marion Barry told me he couldn't support that section of the bill "as mayor or as a citizen" and pledged to put his staff to work to moderate it. "Parents have a responsibility to teach their children what to engage in and what not to engage in, but government should not be legislating in that area." He agreed taht such legislation sends the "wrong signals to the community."
Moreover, the problem with these signals is that they couldn't come at a worse time. The Corporation Counsel's office is very selectively enforcing the current District law which makes it a crime to have sex with any female under the age of 16. The proposed decriminalization comes at a time when kids are throwing caution to the winds and fooling around with birth control pills as a way to excuse their freer behavior. The signal the council is sending them now is simple: Go ahead, it's OK.
But pre-teens and teens are not equipped to handle the consequences of their sexual behavior. At their most mature, thoughtful best, they say things like "We should be able to have experiences just like older ones (people)," or "Last summer everyone was having babies. Not this summer, no more."
They don't have any sense of how birth control pills or early pregnancy or abortion may affect their health. Our job as socially responsible adults is to tell them.
Instead, the council committee has made an egregious decision that has the effect of not helping our young people develop as adults with mature thoughts on sexual relations, but rather to throw them into adulthood. The signal that is being sent, despite the committee's best intention, is an attitude of they're doing it, so let's acknowledge it.
What is the value of sending that signal at this time? What is gained when to send such a signal is to risk so much?
For if the council committee was reading reality, it would have seen there couldn't be a worse time to decriminalize sex between consenting children when one of them is not significantly older than the other. Divorce is at an all-time high; out-of-wedlock births are spiraling, infant mortality is up, child prostitution is becoming a bigger and bigger problem and communicable diseases are running rampant.
We return full circle, then, to leadership. For what the council should be doing is proposing some positive programs to assist families, to help educate them in sex and its consequences. That would be leadership.
Accommodation without regard to principle, approving legislation without reading it -- these aren't the precepts of leadership. Heeding the call of the Zeitgeist -- the spirit of the times that has made permissiveness queen for the day -- isn't leadership. What was needed was one brave person to rise above the legal, practical and say, I care about our children; I know what is right and what is wrong; I have the courage to stand for what I believe in. What was required was moral courage.
The lawyers may agree with the judiciary committee that the city's current sexual assualt laws don't belong on the books, that they have no place in our society today. But the signals sent by advocating their repeal just aren't worth the price.
Whether we will have children of character depends partly on whether we have leaders of courage.