Moral Panic

Ye Olde Ikea Sex Traffickers

Moral panic over abductions is nothing new.

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We are in the midst of a massive mommy moral panic. Across the country, mothers are writing breathless accounts on Facebook of how sex traffickers nearly snatched their children at Target/Ikea/the grocery store.

While at Sam's Club, one such post explains, "a man came up to us and asked if the empty cart nearby was ours.…He was an African American with a shaved head.…It seemed like an innocent encounter." Innocent, that is, until the mom and kids headed to Walmart and there was the guy again, "feverishly texting on his phone but not taking his eye off my daughter."

It could only mean one thing, she wrote: "I have absolutely NO doubt that that man is a trafficker looking for young girls to steal and sell."

And I have absolutely no doubt that she's wrong. This is what security expert Bruce Schneier has dubbed a "movie plot threat"—a narrative that looks suspiciously like what you'd see at the Cineplex. The more "movie plot" a situation seems, the less likely it is to be real.

But it sells. A Facebook post by Diandra Toyos went wildly viral after she said she and her kids were followed by two men at Ikea. "I had a bad feeling," she wrote. Fortunately, she "managed to lose them."

Which, frankly, is what one does at Ikea, even with people one is trying not to lose. Nonetheless, the post ricocheted through the media. CBS told viewers that while experts found the scenario unlikely, "that doesn't mean Toyos didn't have reason to be concerned."

Actually, it does.

When yet another post from another mom took off in Denver, local news outlets had to run stories reassuring parents that there had been no legitimate sex trafficking reports in the area. The Littleton Independent also informed people that an earlier story about a man "kidnapping" a child in front of the local library turned out to be about a guy moving a stroller out of the way so he could get to his car.

David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, says parents always worry about their kids. But more and more, that primal fear "gets paired with the fact that we live in a very heterogeneous society, where we encounter lots of people whose behavior and motives we can't read, we can't identify with." It's a big case of fear of The Other.

Had Finkelhor heard of a single case where a child was taken from a parent in public and forced into the sex trade? No. Because it's not happening. Actual traffickers build relationships with the young people they go on to exploit, usually troubled or runaway teens. No one is spiriting 2-year-olds from Target.

These Facebook posts about fiends snatching innocent children are eerily reminiscent of an older, more pernicious scare: a corrosive lie called the "blood libel," in which Jews during medieval times were said to be killing Christian children and using their blood to make matzah. But while the blood libels were directed against a single group, medieval scholar Emily Rose points out, the Facebook posts aren't, though they often mention men of a different ethnic background than the writer. In that sense, today's stories are more like generic stranger danger.

But then Rose describes the most famous blood libel of all: the 1475 abduction and murder of a young Italian boy, Simon of Trent.

A Jew was accused of killing him for his blood. It was not the first such story, but this one spread like wildfire thanks to a brand new social medium: print. Posters and poems disseminated the allegations; Trent became a pilgrimage destination. "So Simon goes viral," Rose explains, and now everyone "wants their own."

Across the continent, people started claiming that a Christian child had been murdered by a Jew in their town, too. "Most of these kids didn't even exist," Rose says, "and if they did exist, they weren't killed." But that didn't stop the stories from catching on. And the people repeating them were no longer just plain peasants in a two-bit town. Suddenly, says Rose, "you feel part of something bigger."

Today's panicked moms probably don't see themselves playing a role that goes back centuries. But the only thing new is the medium they're using to spread fear.