During the Vietnam War there was a phrase that came to symbolize the entire misbegotten adventure: "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it." It was said at first with sincerity, then repeated with irony, and finally with despair.
I have heard similar thoughts in the weeks since Texas authorities invaded a ranch in Eldorado and rounded up hundreds of children from the polygamous sect of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Did they traumatize the children in order to protect them? Did they shatter their lives to rescue them?
The invasion came after a tip from a 16-year-old who called herself a victim of sexual abuse. The tip may turn out to be a hoax, but the practices of the sect are well-known.
In the world of the FLDS, "spiritual marriage" between older men and underage girls — what the law defines as rape — is given the stamp of religious approval. Of 53 girls believed to be between 14 and 17, more than 30 have children or are pregnant, including one who gave birth to her second child in custody. Among the boys, too, there is suspicion of widespread physical abuse. Indeed, many teenage boys are routinely banished to preserve the odds of polygamy.
Nevertheless the story of children taken from parents, of families wrenched apart, has produced enormous concern and worry in the past weeks. Is this a rescue operation or a state-sponsored attack on parents? Should the state enforce a set of values or tolerate "alternative lifestyles" and religions?
These questions themselves say something about our own cultural moment. Who, after all, doesn't do a double take when hearing that these "endangered children" were never exposed to the Internet or television or processed food? The girls in their prairie dresses who are raised for assigned men have never text-messaged or eaten Fruit Loops or seen Hannah Montana. The children's requests for a bread-making machine and prayer time have led to some ironic comments about exactly which culture is protecting children.
More to the point is the concern about separating children from parents. Every agency balances the risks of leaving children in a dangerous setting and the trauma of removing them. But cases are generally weighed one at a time. What's different about the FLDS case is that it was a wholesale roundup of all the children of a whole community.
This makes many, like Jane Spinak, a Columbia law professor who has represented children in foster care, uneasy. "We may not like their lifestyle," she says. "We may not condone the practice of multiple women living together with a man, but it's not for the court to decide lifestyles."
Spinak remembers when children were removed from biracial families, let alone gay families. "Lots of people live lives we don't think are good for their children, but we don't take the children away." Indeed, this citizen of New York archly reminds me that two governors have admitted multiple partners in recent months without having their children removed.
Nevertheless, what do we make of an entire sect that has sexual abuse at its very heart? That believes plural "marriages" between older men and underage women are not an aberration but a pathway to heaven?
Nobody can prosecute the FLDS for what they believe, says Marci Hamilton, author of God vs. the Gavel. "They can stay together and believe what they want into eternity. What they can't do is illegal action."
She compares their community to a crack house. "If you go into a drug den in a burnt-out rowhouse and all the adults are drug addicts, how can you leave the children there?" Hamilton calls this sect a "conspiracy of adults to commit systematic child sex abuse."
I understand the ambivalence toward this dramatic story. The uprooting of distraught children from pained parents strikes a primal core. And we are aware that many state foster care systems are flawed enough to amount to a second kind of abuse. But surely the call to understand this sect as just another unique corner of multicultural America is relativism run amok.
Individual hearings will begin next week. I hope that the children and mothers will tell the truth rather than follow the admonition to "keep sweet." I hope mothers will choose their children over obedience to their patriarchs.
But in the end, what we have on that ranch in Eldorado is not a lifestyle. It's a pedophile ring. If we cannot rescue children from that, we've already destroyed their village.
Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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