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Terrorism, Panic and Pedophilia

Daniel M. Filler, Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law, Vol. 10, No. 3


How did Americans apportion responsibility for the acts of September 11, and how might that response change in the aftermath of future terrorism? This article studies the nation's reaction through a sociological lens.

Following high-profile crimes, the public often panics, targeting marginal sub-communities with anger and new regulations. This phenomenon is often termed 'moral panic.' 

After technological catastrophes, however, public blame is typically more diffuse, taking the form of 'risk society panics' that focus not only on individuals and sub-communities, but also socially powerful institutions such as corporations and the government.

September 11 was a combination of crime and technological catastrophe - criminals killed thousands of people by subverting technology, taking advantage of the dangers inherent to air travel, high rise buildings, and the like. Public reaction reflected this ambiguity.

This article studies rhetoric used after September 11 to understand why public anxiety unfolded as it did.

Despite anger towards Muslims and people from the Middle East, and government policy disparately targeting these groups, public and institutional responses were mild compared to internment policies following Pearl Harbor. 

A new rhetoric has surfaced, however, linking terrorism, Islam and pedophilia. By connecting these concepts, moral entrepreneurs lay the groundwork for a very different response to new terrorism. 

In the aftermath of an incident similar to September 11, Muslims could be the object of a moral panic, targeted for radical regulation, such as internment. 

By framing Muslims as the equivalent of pedophiles, advocates may attempt to argue for such policies as the moral equivalent of sexual offender civil commitment.

This article suggests that civil rights advocates develop counter-narratives to address any such developments.

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