Free-Range Kids

Stranger-Danger Panic Is Getting People Killed

"No child under the age of 10 in the United States that has ever been snatched from a parent in public and trafficked for sex."


Vadym Petrochenko / Dreamstime

Spreading stranger-danger never leads to anything good, and new technology only makes it worse.

That's the point I make in my first-ever New York Times op-ed. It was prompted by the hysteria gripping India at the moment—a fear of child snatchers.

This summer in India, two dozen innocent people died at the hands of mobs convinced that they were meting out justice to kidnappers. One was a software engineer beaten to death after giving chocolates to children outside a school. One was a 65-year-old woman who got lost on a trip to a temple with her family and stopped to ask for directions. All five travelers were stripped naked and beaten with fists, sticks, and iron rods. One was hospitalized in a coma. A woman named Rukmani died in the street. As I wrote:

This what it happens when stranger-danger runs rampant. It turns out that fear of strangers is far more dangerous than strangers themselves.

The panic began in April when a video that appears to show a child being scooped off the street by two men on a motorcycle went viral. The video was originally created in Pakistan as a public service announcement to teach parents to watch their children more closely. The end of the clip showed the child returned by the "kidnappers" who held up a sign: "It takes but a moment to snatch a child off the streets of Karachi."

I go on to compare that video with the super-popular YouTube videos purporting to show how simple it is to steal a child from the playground, as if this is a common threat (it's not). I also discuss the army of moms on Facebook who are convinced they narrowly avoided their kids being taken:

When scary rumors are repeated over and over — or watched again and again — they change the way we see the world. So now it's the rare day on Facebook when I don't come across a post like this: "My name is Amanda and I'm a Longview, Texas resident. I'm convinced that our two-year-old daughter was the victim of a potential sex-trafficking scam yesterday. I got in the checkout line at a local store early afternoon. I took my daughter out of the cart and the couple ahead struck up the typical conversation about how 'cute your daughter is.'"

Strangers — East Indians, she says — admiring her child. That's it. That's all it took for this mother to believe they were child-snatchers.

In all these social media stories, including Amanda's, no child is actually kidnapped. None of the strangers do anything more than glance or chat. Panic does the rest.

David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, tells me he knows of no child under the age of 10 in the United States that has ever been snatched from a parent in public and trafficked for sex. And yet these posts get shared tens of thousands of times, usually with comments like, "So glad you're safe!" or, "Mamas, keep your babies close!"

Read the full op-ed here.

NEXT: Federal Prosecutors Love Snitches; Trump Thinks They Should Get Stitches

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  1. Ban facebook

  2. these posts get shared tens of thousands of times, usually with comments like, “So glad you’re safe!” or, “Mamas, keep your babies close!”

    “Please get help for your panic disorder!”

    1. If you don’t keep them close, some may grow up to be cowboys.

  3. I’ll remember this the next time I am tempted to join a Punjabi mob

    1. Nah man. I recommend everyone do it at least once.

      1. Just one participation in a Punjabi mob can be enough to get you or a loved one hooked for life.

        Punjabi Mobs: Not Even Once

        this message brought to you by Mothers Against Mothers Against Stuff

        1. +1, recursive

      1. You know, you often do come across as tired and burnt out when sharing your “arguments.”

  4. It’s amazing to realize that this is often how witch hunts and wars start. Just plant a few stories and rile people up. Even if they are false (and they usually are), it’s enough to spark a frenzy. Having said that, banning such stories won’t help. Because then people will just get more clever in how they spread them. Furthermore, Facebook often suspends accounts. This backfires because guess what people do when they can’t use Facebook? The only solution is to fight hate speech ourselves. Fortunately today we can do that from the comfort and safety of our living rooms. It’s baffling to me why people want to delegate this privilege back to Facebook. They will end up censoring everything including the peacemakers. (Because censors tend to be idiots.)

    Anyway thank you Lenore for this article and I liked the part about the ‘blood libel’ in baking the matzoh. Just curious – so what are we supposed to use instead?

    1. It’s amazing to realize that this is often how witch hunts and wars start.

      Not sure about wars, but agreed and add: the culture of fear has been around for a long time and several witch hunts are in progress like anti-smoking, anti-gun ownership, and anti-males on college campuses (we’re all rapists now).

    2. I’ve been assured many times here that nobody takes what they read on Facebook seriously and would never be persuaded to change their actions based on something they read or saw there.

      1. If likeminded souls are deciding who to vote for based on the last Facebook add they saw, then you really don’t deserve their vote.

  5. Imagine if the good people of Salem were armed against the witches with social media.

    1. Their self esteem would have stopped to near zero.

    2. In any small location, word-of-mouth gossip is equivalent in power to social media.

    3. You know the old saying, “I takes a village to beat innocent people to death.”

      1. I think we’re headed in that direction.

  6. Given the State Cult’s murder rate (Google “Democide”), wouldn’t “Statist Danger!” be more useful?

  7. So where did that guy in New Mexico teaching kids to be school shooters get all the kids at his compound?

    1. Presumably their parents.

    2. When a mommy and daddy Islamic fundamentalist love each other very much…

    3. You could’ve done a little research:

      Anderson said he met both of the men in the group, but never the women, who authorities have said are the mothers of the 11 children, ages 1 to 15.

      1. so more bull shit I’d like CPS to be that lackadaisical with American parents who let their kids walk dogs around the block

        1. “Over the last two months, six Child Protective Services field agents in Ohio have been beaten to death by angry mobs because of allegations (later found to be true) that they had snatched children away from their parents.”
          ~welcome article from 2019

  8. Lenore Skenazy is covering Indian kidnap culture in the NYT? I can only assume Shikha’s busy constructing an effigy of her to burn in spite.

    1. Shakia’s trying to arrange a boat for the mobs to come to the US.

  9. Haven’t you ever seen that documentary Taken? /sarc

    1. And his kids were taken what, three times?

      1. Taken/dangled as bait, who are we to judge?

      2. They’re not kids if they’re 27.

        1. I think Tolkien had it right – age of majority should be 33. So then yes, they would be kids.

  10. cheers on the NYT gig … mobs are idiots.

  11. My dog suffers from stranger danger.

    1. If he were doing his job, the strangers would be suffering from dog danger.

  12. “It takes but a moment to snatch a child off the streets of Karachi and even less time to blow them up into little pieces on those same streets.”

    1. Good point – what else can be done i a moment?

      Should we use the largest nuke in the US arsenal against a populated area just to prove the effects?

      Blow up a school? I’m sure they don’t have security at the level to.pre-detect bombs.

      What about arson? Can we start random forest fires just to show how easy it is? After all, it only takes an instant.

  13. The end of the clip showed the child returned by the “kidnappers” who held up a sign: “It takes but a moment to snatch a child off the streets of Karachi.”

    I don’t know anything about the setup of the video, but if the child and parents didn’t know and the police did the snatching, the perpetrators are guilty of kidnapping.

    Giving them back and stating ‘Just kidding! Was only trying to.prove a point’ is a worthless excuse.

    Sounds like it came directly from a psychopath – ‘Not my fault they left their doors unlocked’.

    1. The original video was a Pakistani PSA, so I’m gonna guess the entire thing was staged and everyone was in on it.

      Either way, the point is that the version of the video that was going around India’s social media was doctored: the ending (showing it was fake) was removed, leading viewers to think the kidnapping was real.

  14. I bet that anti-vax people are disproportionately worried about kidnappings too.

    “I know this sounds like old-fart talk, but I think kids today are too soft. They have to wear plastic helmets for every outdoor activity but jacking off. Toy safety, car seats, fire-resistant pajamas. Shit! Soft, baby boomer parents, with their cult of the child, are raising a crop of soft, fruity kids.”
    RIP George Carlin

    1. I know without a doubt I will live to see children playing soccer with helmets.

      1. Maybe someone will score occasionally then.

      2. If you mean soccer will be banned but kids will be allowed to wander around a field while wearing a helmet, then yes.

      3. They are already there. Some leagues outlaw heading. Other wear a protective headband.

        Heading in soccer can cause CTE, just like football.

  15. People are idiots. People will believe anything. People will act on flawed information and do stupid things with tragic results.

    So, why democracy?

  16. “No child under the age of 10 in the United States that has ever been snatched from a parent in public and trafficked for sex.”

    Is that a challange?

    1. I find the children to be way sexier if their mouths are all cut up from the razor blades I put in their Halloween candied apples.

      1. All of the handful of confirmed cases of Halloween treat tampering involved an adult targeting a single specific child to whom the perpetrator was not a stranger.

  17. To be fair, there was a village in India that attacked police because they hadn’t arrested the half-man, half-beast creature they were convinced were attacking villagers.


  18. Skenazy is new at the Times but she is already learning. They probably wouldn’t have agreed to run a moral-panic debunking piece if she hadn’t cleverly thrown in the bit where a white lady suspects brown people of trying to steal her baby.

    1. Maybe she thought they were dingos, ever think of that? I mean, whipepo, amirite?

  19. The NY Times thinks I’ve read enough NY Times articles this month, and who am I to disagree? Sorry, Ms. Skenazy, I have to give the Times money to read your article, and I’m not about to do that.

    1. Too many have read too many NYT articles for the rest of their natural lives. It’s too bad we can’t sic CPT on them…

  20. Not sure how true the story was, but my aunt said a couple tried to steal my older brother when he was an infant. Seems that this may have been much more of a thing 50 years ago, but of course, myths get passed on to future generations.

    1. “Seems that this may have been much more of a thing 50 years ago”

      Extremely unlikely, if you can only point to the one case.

      There are three basic scenarios for stranger kidnappings of children.

      Kidnapping for ransom.

      Kidnapping for sex trafficking .

      Infertile woman/couple steals baby for themselves.

      All three do happen, but they are extremely rare, and no, there is no evidence that any of them were any more common in the past.

  21. We really have made it mandatory to coddle children to an insane level. They are legally required to be treated as if they are completely incompetent, and if you are trying to teach them to be competent little humans you are likely breaking the law.

    ~130 years ago: My great great grandfather (8) and his sister (6) were left by their parents at a Mission in Oklahoma, with instructions to wait several weeks, and then get on a wagon train and meet their family in Houston. Which they did.

    Today: You left your child unattended for 30 seconds?! Prison. Lose your kids. Monster!

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