Editor's Note: Moral Panic Buttons


As Americans, we're quick to congratulate ourselves for having created a thoughtful and enlightened society, one where superstition and inflamed passions are tempered by rational analysis and skeptical inquiry. This is largely true and cause for some measure of celebration, if not the uncritical smugness that often accompanies displays of national pride.

Yet a number of the stories in this month's reason point to instances where we have manifestly failed to exercise good judgment, where moral panic has replaced clear thinking. There's Damon W. Root's review of Devil's Knot, a new book about the "West Memphis Three," a group of boys unfairly convicted of gruesome "Satanic" murders in Arkansas ("Hell Hounds," page 60). Among the damning evidence: The defendants listened to heavy metal music and wore black clothing—proof strong enough to sway a jury, despite conflicting testimony and the absence of physical evidence.

In his analysis of A.L. Schafer's famous "Thou Shalt Not" photo, Senior Editor Charles Paul Freund underscores that for all our supposed sophistication, we remain convinced that "certain images are once again…dangerous—not merely offensive, but morally harmful if represented as normative" ("Wicked Woman Warning, page 64). It used to be pictures of scantily clad women that made censors shudder; now we tremble at images of smoking—so much so that some Hollywood directors have taken a pledge to eradicate cigarettes from their films. In a related way, my piece on "Lust-See TV" (page 57) rebukes those who insist, against the evidence, that small-screen sex leads to real-life rolls in the hay (would that life were so simple).

But it's our cover story about the controversial painkiller OxyContin that most fully drives home how moral panics can cause immense pain and suffering. Melinda Ammann's "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (page 28) documents in disturbing and depressing detail how hysterical tales of OxyContin abuse have made it increasingly difficult for doctors to treat pain patients properly. Ammann exposes the plight of doctors hounded by the Drug Enforcement Administration for allegedly promiscuous prescriptions and of patients who have to bear excruciating pain and increasingly uncertain access to the one legal drug that has made their lives bearable.

We tend to be optimistic here at reason, to have faith that people, given the widest possible latitude to live their lives and to conduct their business, will create powerful new ways to make the world a far better place. You can read about some very interesting developments along those lines in "Is That a Computer in Your Pants?" (page 36), Associate Editor Jesse Walker's fascinating interview with the great cyberculture visionary Howard Rheingold. But it's also vitally important to keep our attention focused on the cases where panic, fear, and reaction still carry the day.