08/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Child Abduction: Take A Deep Breath

Sometimes, when I try to explain how frenzied we have become about the real but extremely rare crime of childhood abduction, or of rampant pedophilia in general, I compare our era to 1692 Salem. There was no way, back then, back there, to convince the average person: Don't you see you're being swept up on a wave of mass hysteria? History will judge you as totally mad on the subject of witches! (Though eventually, I suppose, that'll be great for tourism)

Folks in and around Salem were convinced that witches were everywhere, casting spells, working evil magic. In the end, 150 people were tried as witches and 19 hanged, all for - we can see with the perspective of time - no reason.

Now, I'm not saying that there are absolutely no evil folks in the world today who wish harm upon children. But to imagine them everywhere, ever ready to snatch children, is to see the world through Salem eyes. Eyes blinded by hysteria. And yet, look at this article from the Times of London.

"One quarter of the adult population will require criminal records checks under the new child protection system coming into force next year, according to a report criticising the scheme."

That's right: ONE QUARTER OF ALL ADULTS IN ENGLAND will be forced to undergo background checks to see if they have ever been convicted of pedophilia. The basic assumption being that ANYONE WHO HAS ANY CONTACT WITH CHILDREN SHOULD BE CONSIDERED A PEDOPHILE UNTIL PROVEN OTHERWISE.

Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting -- a book that very much influenced me - says that a system like this actually makes children LESS safe because, as the Times paraphrases him, "Far from enhancing the safety of children, the child protection system, which relies solely on the criminal records checks, places them in more danger because no-one uses their own judgement any more." (Not to mention the fact that a background check only uncovers previous convictions. So it's not even good at what it purports to do: Weed out every last pervert.)

Moreover, a law like that makes adults far less eager to volunteer for schools, scout troops, or any activity with kids involved, because they have to undergo (and pay for) the background check first. Worse, in a suspicious climate like that - not unlike our own - adults grow wary of any involvement with kids who aren't theirs. Furedi cites the tragic story of a two-year-old who wandered away from her nursery. A man driving by noticed her on the street but (as he later testified at an inquest) he didn't stop to help for fear he'd be accused of trying to abduct her.

When we get to the point in society where basic adult concern for children could well be mistaken for evil - when a man thinks twice about helping a child because he knows he could find himself on trial - we're back in Salem, 1692. The next "witch" could be you, comforting the kid who fell off her swing, volunteering for the school dance without a background check. Or, of course, letting your children go "Free-Range," and being accused of depraved indifference to all the black magic swirling around them.