Sunday, April 27, 2008

yearning for zion

On the basis of a single phone call, child protective services and some rather overdressed sheriffs raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas. Again, on the basis of suspicions surrounding the phone call, 416 children were removed from their parents and put in state custody. It's awfully difficult to see this behavior as conforming to the watchwords "innocent until proven guilty." True, if the well being of a child is at stake, we may wish to act to protect the child first, and confirm the danger second. However, I find it awfully difficult to believe that the average circumstances of these 416 children are improved by their being in state custody rather than with their parents. A former FLDS member reports that charges of forced and early marriages are greatly exaggerated, and, supposedly, among those whose children were removed from the compound (and from them) were a divorced single mother and several monogamous couples.

Current best guess for the origin of this single phone call is a 33-year old Colorado woman with no connection to the FLDS, but who had used the phone number previously, and who had impersonated abused children over the phone previously as well. Now, it is of interest to note here that in the phone call which prompted the raid, the caller named "Dale Barlow" as her abuser. But "Dale Barlow" was already known to authorities as he was on probation. Furthermore, he was known by authorities to be a resident of Arizona, rather than Texas.

I think the comparisons to the Waco Branch Davidian complex raid in 1993 have been overly quick. Nevertheless, there are two disturbing similarities between the incidents, whatever their differences: 1) in both cases, peaceful alternatives to a raid were not adequately explored before force was decided upon; 2) in both cases, authorities seemed ready to accept outrageous accusations more readily simply because the group in question lived in isolation and practiced a minority religion. Furthermore, in both cases, authorities did not bother to research the details of said minority religion, although this would have helped them to conduct raids in a less damaging and more constructive manner.

In a rational society, we should balance (1) the moral imperative to protect the well being of children against (2) the moral cost of replacing expectation of innocence with that of guilt and (3) the practical cost of using government resources to act upon mere suspicions of guilt. In order to balance this equation, we must consider the evidence involved. The higher the costs in terms of (2) and (3) the stronger the evidence needed to support a claim that action is necessary to uphold (1). On the basis of the information available in the public sphere, it certainly appears as if this equation was not properly balanced in the Yearning for Zion case: the practical cost in terms of resources was enormous, the expectation of guilt rather than innocence has been applied to every single adult member of an entire community, and the evidence that children were being abused continues to be scant, to say the least. Again, this is only on the basis of evidence available in the public sphere. Nevertheless, if the government expects its citizens to support it as it prosecutes entire communities / religions wholesale, it should should provide them with the evidential justification for its actions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Very helpful.