Scarlet Letters

Illustration: Lord Lindsay Buckingham-Palace

As third-party applications of the Google Maps interface go, the Family Watchdog National Sex Offender Registry isn't exactly a browser's delight. As an invitation to liberal hand-wringing, however, it's almost exquisite. Fill in your address and go: In seconds, a neighborhood map pops up, flecked with red and purple squares indicating the homes and workplaces of registered convicted child molesters. Click on a square and you'll get a nice big mug shot of the perp, along with a full name, street address, and glancing details of the ex-con's crimes. If you're a typical American voter, your only emotions after browsing will be fear and revulsion at your proximity to this sort of criminal (statistically among the hardest to rehabilitate) and maybe gratitude that neighborhood kids can be shown which strangers really not to take candy from. The rest of us, though, will likely feel a slightly more complex queasiness, the kind that grips you when your basic mammalian urge to protect the vulnerable collides with your basic liberal conviction that scarlet letters and similarly shaming punishments should stay in other centuries, where they belong.

It's a fine-tuned dilemma, but it quickly comes apart when you notice that yellow, green, and blue squares outnumber the red and purple ones and realize that the map lists not only child molesters but all other sex offenders as well, a class of ex-con less likely to reoffend than any number of nonsexual predators not subject to mandatory neighborhood watch. At which point the site excuses you from wrestling with the hardest questions it poses and reveals itself as the latest addition to our lurid culture of crime stat porn, joining America's Most Wanted and the venerable police blotter in helping us believe we stand besieged by a shadow nation of criminals. That illusion, though, could be more dangerous than the reality.

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