Scarlet Letters


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

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.