The first note read: “SAFETY ALERT — Suspicious man in area parks”.
How could a parent not read what followed?
“A suspicious man has been found watching children in local parks, including Rose Park. ... For now please be on the lookout, call the police if needed, and be extra extra safe,” said the message posted in a Georgetown parenting e-mail exchange.
The warning, along with a blurry photo taken at a distance showing a tall, thin, white man with close-cropped hair sitting on a park bench at the playground, sipping from a coffee cup, was forwarded to other neighborhood e-mail groups. From there, it was forwarded to school e-mail groups and parents’ inboxes throughout Northwest D.C. this week.
Follow-ups followed. A nanny said she may have spotted the man at an Adams Morgan playground. Others might have seen him a while back at National Cathedral's Flower Mart, where he allegedly approached children offering tutoring services. Words like “creepy” and “dangerous” have accompanied the notes.
“I’ve received numerous inquires regarding a suspicious person looking at children in local parks,” Metropolitan Police Department Det. Neil Jones wrote to me when I e-mailed him about the concerns.
He said police are interested in identifying the man but, he wrote, “no crime has been committed at this time — all we have is an individual sitting on a public park bench at Rose Park drinking coffee. There is no evidence of this individual approaching any children.”
The mini panic doesn’t say much about whether this man is an actual threat. But it does say much about modern parenting and about our relentless anxiety.
No longer are hunches spread among friends.They are spread online. This has benefits as warnings can head off real danger, which this person may possibly pose. But unverified information and unjustified fear can also go viral.
If it’s someone else’s hunch, how can we determine if we should dismiss it or embrace it?
A generation ago, when we might have heard of this “suspicious” man from a friend or neighbor, we would have known the messenger personally, would have known her general level of anxiety and would have understood the emotional landscape.
Now, we hear about it from a correspondence that was written by a stranger and passed around, embellished upon and served to us with urgency.
“Here you have in micro the dynamics of a ‘moral panic,’ that is, a social movement that organizes itself in response to perceived moral perils and whose responses include greater vigilance, public brandings of the accused, tougher laws, and so on,” Roger N. Lancaster wrote to me after I e-mailed him about the warnings.
The George Mason University cultural studies professor last year published “Sex Panic and the Punitive State,” (University of California Press) and has previously spoken with me about the current parenting climate that has parents, he says, in a constant state of dread.
We keep our kids indoors and under constant supervision out of the misplaced idea that over-protection is good parenting, even though the reality is that child abduction by a stranger is exceedingly rare, he contends.
The problem is that “rare” does not mean “non-existent.”
All we need for a reminder of this is to look at the re-emergence of the story that haunts every parent, the disappearance of Etan Patz.
Today, on the eve of the 33rd anniversary of that 6-year-old New Yorker’s first solo trek to his bus stop, police have said a former neighbor has implicated himself.
Given the possibility of such horror, is spreading word about a suspicion really wrong? I asked Lancaster.
“I’ve wrestled with this question a lot,” he answered.
“What if you knew that someone was planning something bad? Of course you’d want to publicize it, and hopefully impede an evil.
“The problem is that when shifting definitions of evil combine with low standards of evidence, you get witch hunts. (Is sitting on a park bench with a cup of coffee any reasonable measure of evil intent?)
“People are also right to want safe streets, parks, and playgrounds. The problem comes when reasonable desires turn into utopian wishes for an absolutely safe, absolutely hygienic — dare one say, absolutely familiar — environment. Then the public goes on a mad chase for impossible conditions.”
He said, in this case, two pieces of advice he gives in his book are worth repeating:
1.Take a deep breath.
2. Always insist on hard evidence.
What do you think? Is spreading a warning on an e-mail exchange beneficial? How can a parent best evaluate a potential threat?