When Fighting Crime Turns to Panic

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It was less than a half-century ago in the heart of the Midwest that a witch-hunt that would make a Puritan proud resulted in dozens of homosexual men being institutionalized. The panic began with the brutal assault and murder of a young boy and a young girl in Sioux City, Iowa in 1955. The police's response was to take anyone deemed a "sexual deviant" and put them in a psychiatric ward until they were "cured."

It may seem like a story out of America's not-so-distant McCarhtyist past. But the seemingly irrational response of the Sioux City police is echoed in events of our own time. There was the Fells Acres sex abuse case in Massachusetts, where many feel the police planted false memories of abuse in the heads of children; the Megan's Law movement that publicizes whenever a convicted sex offender moves into a new neighborhood; and the tendency towards the racial profiling of Arab Americans following the September 11th attacks.

This hour, a look at what can happen when the fear of crime spreads into a panic: lessons from the past that can inform us today.


Neil Miller, Lecturer of Journalism and Non-fiction writing at Tufts University and author of "Sex Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid heart of the 1950's"

Harold McBride, 80-year-old hairdresser in California who was one of the men institutionalized in the 1950s for sexual deviancy

This program aired on February 21, 2002.


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