After Natascha Kampusch escaped from her long captivity, followed by the revelation that Josef Fritzl had turned his own daughter into a sex slave, there was an enormous amount of national soul searching in Austria where these crimes occurred. There was lots of tisking, too, from the rest of the world with the surmise that things so inexplicable and grotesque must have something to do with the Teutonic character run amok.
While there is, in this country, a great morbid curiosity about the details of Phillip Garrido imprisonment of Jaycee Dugard and the two daughters she had with him, together with lots of rehashing of other sex-related kidnappings, nobody, as far as I can see, is drawing any conclusions about what this might say about the American character.
The only larger inferences we seem to be getting has to do with how we track sex offenders—with the New York Times explaining the other day that, while we maintain lots of information on sex offenders, it doesn’t seem to protect anybody.
This emphasis on the procedural and the morbid seems like a lost opportunity because there are, obviously, a few hard-to-miss points to be made about aspects of American life.
For one thing, while we talk about sex offender lists, and about how offenders are often shunned by respectable communities, there is, as Phillip Garrido surely demonstrates, an incredible tolerance in America for horrifying weirdos. Philip Garrido, a registered sex offender, maintained a none-too-carefully hidden shanty-town in his backyard (visible through Google) and no one raised an eyebrow. Young children appeared as if from nowhere inside his fence and nobody raised an alarm. The police came to his house and failed to notice anything suspicious.
It’s an American Gothic thing—or, by any other name, a white trash thing. On the fringe of communities across the country there is a mutant culture: trashy, marginal, uneducated, unhealthy, and nutty. People cluck about it, and are fairly careful to avoid it, but are, too, remarkably laissez-faire towards it. This is partly because white trash means…white. And partly because, in America, a white man’s home is his castle (no matter how much debris is in the yard), and you just don’t ask too many questions (and because so many homes in America look like the homes of sex offenders).
And partly because of Jesus.
If Phillip Garrido ranted about there being no God, if he passed out atheist tracts, instead of bizarre-o Jesus-saves stuff, he would likely have been carted off years ago. But Jesus saves you not just from your sins but from public opprobrium. It may not make you any less weird in people’s eyes, but it makes you part of a protected class of weirdos. Jesus is an acceptable refuge for the sex offender. God knows, Jesus may even incite the sex offender.
No matter. If you believe hotly enough in Jesus, you’re a good American—at least for all the other weird Christians with piles of crap in their backyards, which is a considerable demographic.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.