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Foley Days | The Nation

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Foley Days

Let's see, in the last week the National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the Iraq War has become a jihadist "cause celebre" that only fuels terrorism and anti-Americanism. The Republican-led Congress authorized torture, suspended habeas corpus and approved the construction of a 700-mile long fence along the Mexican border. Former Bush hagiographer Bob Woodward revealed that Condi Rice was warned about an impending al-Qaeda attack two months before 9/11, but did nothing.

But Huzzah! The Democrats have finally gone on the offensive; the DCCC is pushing for Dennis Hastert's resignation as speaker. Their cause celebre? A bunch of pervy emails and IMs between former Congressman Mark Foley and various pageboys about masturbation techniques and lacrosse practice.

Okay, so Foley's a semi-closet case, a hypocrite, a sleazebag and a drunk (though he might be making this last bit up, which makes him a liar instead). But as of this writing, no criminal or civil charges have been filed, no laws have been demonstrably broken and nobody has claimed to have been harmed by his actions (though one page says Foley's photo request "freaked me out"). There might have been a cover-up, or more likely a disposition to look the other way, on the part of the House leadership. I'm sure we'll learn more about who knew what when in the month to come.

But really, have the Democrats sunk so low that a Congressional inquiry parsing questions like "did you spank it this weekend yourself" and "do I make you a little horny" now constitutes their major, galvanizing election issue? "Congress must not pass the buck on investigating this cover-up," intoned Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Where, dear Nancy, have you been hiding such steely resolve?

I admit there's some pleasure in hanging Foley, whose primary legislative agenda was cracking down on child sex offenders, with the noose of his own hypocrisy. And it's all too easy to take other Republicans along for the ride. But moral outrage over Foley's "crimes" stems, at least in part, from conflating him with the monstrous, stranger child kidnapper-rapist-murderer that is the subject of his own legislation. Hence, the sense of dramatic irony: Foley railed against these sickos, but he was one of them!

But in fact, it appears that Foley took great care to keep himself apart from his demons. Nobody alleges that he abducted, raped or assaulted anyone. As of this writing, no physical contact or solicitation for physical contact took place. No pornography was produced or exchanged (though depending on how you read the IMs, obscene material may have been). No money was exchanged. Foley has no previous record as a sex offender (which would have required him to register as such and perhaps, under his own law, wear an electronic GPS collar for life). He was no stranger to these teens. He waited, so it seems, until they were no longer employees of the House. He was stupid, and scrupulous.

My point is: At worst, many of the so-called "child protection" laws Foley favored vastly overreach and violate Constitutional rights to privacy. In some states "sex offenders" convicted of consensual, non-violent crimes like sodomy or fornication with another adult are required to register and have their name, address, image and place of work made public. At best, these laws are largely ineffective because, as experts point out, the vast majority of sexual abuse happens between family members, friends and acquaintances (i.e. guys like Mark Foley), and not strangers.

It seems inaccurate to call Foley a child sex offender, but if one insists on doing so, one ought at least note that his own legislation, which is being burnished in the press now if only to make Foley into a negative example, wouldn't have stopped him at all. For that, one would need, not draconian, grandstanding legislation, but the kind of common decency that's apparently in short supply these days on Capitol Hill.

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