Welcome to Salem.

Yesterday, Toronto police held a fraught press conference on their investigation of a child pornography “ring,” i.e., people who used credit cards to buy images from a U.S. company. One officer said they have 231 “targets” in Toronto. Ten have been arrested, under the law against possessing child porn. But the anxiety seemed deeper. If people simply possess images but don’t abuse kids, how serious is the problem and why were police begging for vast new resources to enforce that law? Well, one said, “our statistics” show fourty per cent of those who collect child porn abuse kids.

This number sounds alarmingly high, though no source was given. It wasn’t asked about at the press conference or scrum after. The communications spokesman of the Toronto force says he has “no idea” and “no clue” where it came from and has never heard it before.But even if it were so, what precisely does the abuse have to do with possessing the images? Did they abuse because they had the images? Or would they have still abused even if they didn’t have the images? How about those who abuse kids but don’t collect images? And what about people who collect images and because of that, do not abuse kids instead?

You may not like what people like to put in their heads but it’s a hell of a place to go and it leads straight to the world of the Thought Police.

The officers yesterday stressed with fervour that these are not just pictures of kids, but of kids being victimized. So is watching pictures of a crime now a crime? There are videos of executions and beheadings that people apparently like to watch. It’s revolting but does that make the viewers of those acts responsible for them? The police said that those arrested had purchased “access to some of the most evil images of child abuse you can imagine.” I don’t doubt it. But it’s an image, it’s not them doing the thing. Human beings are capable of contemplating, entertaining and being entertained by all kinds of thoughts — including the police at the conference. Some of those thoughts we are only dimly aware of or try to avoid, with varying success.

In my view, anyone with some wisdom knows that what counts morally is not what you think about, but what you enact of your thoughts. Do you really want someone to go inside your head and charge you on the basis of what they discover there — the images that you contemplate or try to suppress?

The police said they have already arrested a police officer, a doctor, and a teacher, as if this should shock everyone. Did they think only pimps and drug dealers have such imaginings? They also told reporters to expect that “some high-profile people” would be arrested soon. That’s when I heard the voice of the Salem witch trials. We will find out what is in your head and your heart, no matter who you seem to be, and we will make you pay.

From what I saw, the press conference wasn’t mainly about enforcing the law on child pornography — which was barely mentioned; or even child abuse, which came up in an aside. It was mainly about being horrified at what is out there in the world and in people’s minds — one officer talked of how you can’t go on the Internet without uncovering mountains of porn — as if the Internet is a concretization of humanity’s terrifying collective unconscious.

The media, faithful reflectors that they are, picked this up. “One of the most disturbing press conferences I have ever witnessed,” said Ann Rohmer on CityPulse, though there were actually no specific, disturbing details. I believe she meant the disturbed tone set by the police. Susan Bonner on Newsworld said, “But to date only thirty-two arrests have been made,” also picking up the tone, as if upset that such heinous impulses have resulted in so little retribution — thus far.

Let me digress to a CBC news documentary this week on the bitter conflict among students over Israel and Palestine at Concordia University. The story was full of anger, hurt, graffiti, broken windows, arrests. But it had almost nothing on the key moment: when an Israeli politician was stopped from speaking. It seems to me that’s an issue both sides could have discussed, yet those interviewed got to say little about it. It’s as if the report was so transfixed by how angry people can become, the irrational fury they are capable of, that concrete, potentially resoluble issues faded. As if what’s in their heads must preoccupy us, not what they do.

It seems to me you pay a price for this kind of willed naiveté and drop-jaw reaction to the revelation that human nature is murky and full of dark places. Part of the price is the arrival of the Thought Police. And part is missing a chance to actually do something, when action, rather than mere shock or dismay, is possible.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.