This past week Jeffrey Epstein, the world’s most notorious accused pedophile and a man renowned for his friends in high places—many of whom allegedly enjoyed the sexual favors of the adolescent girls Mr. Epstein procured—apparently committed suicide in New York City’s most secure and closely monitored jail. Cries of official outrage followed, a thorough investigation was promised—and no one seemed ready to believe a word of any of it.
This saga presents us—seemingly each hour—with yet another titillating morsel of scandal and sleaze to both entertain and shock everyone. However, what might be most interesting about the story of this supposed slime bucket is what it tells us about ourselves and the state of our nation today.
Although we obviously live in a profoundly cynical age, it was difficult to be anything but profoundly cynical when Mr. Epstein’s death was announced. Custody deaths are exceedingly rare, and the excuses that so far have been offered to explain how the highest profile prisoner in America, a man whose secrets might have toppled the world’s most powerful leaders from their pedestals, managed to kill himself in his jail cell have strained every bit of our already frayed credulity. More information regarding his death will trickle out in the weeks and months ahead, but we seem to now have our pick of theories within a range that runs from incomprehensible incompetence to official malfeasance to a paid jailhouse killing that was sped along to shut him up before he could testify in open court.
Conspiracy theorists of every political persuasion are having a field day across the Twitterverse and blogosphere. This is the JFK assassination, Area 51, and the Illuminati served up in a heaping, hot soufflé of suspicion, rumor, and possible Deep State chicanery that perhaps someday will be seen as the moment when our paranoia about the machinations of the wealthy and powerful elites running our nation reached a new and more virulent level.
All of this, of course, has become jet fuel for the divisions already tearing at our nation—how could it be otherwise? Moreover, the shocking nature of Mr. Epstein’s death has prompted even the most trusting individuals to ask very pointed questions about how he could have operated a child sex ring of this magnitude for decades with only the most feeble of response from law enforcement—who was protecting him and why? Conservatives fired up the “Clinton Body Count” hashtag, convinced this is yet another suspicious death of someone who could have exposed the many crimes that they claim have been committed by Bill and Hillary over their many decades of public life. An opposite and perhaps retaliatory theory suggests that President Trump had dallied with a Lolita or two on Epstein’s estate and needed him silenced—pronto! Yet other theories cross the Atlantic Ocean to implicate British intelligence services that needed to protect the royal family from scandalous exposure. The list of the rich and famous who might have signed up for the opportunity to rape a 14 year old girl thanks to Mr. Epstein’s tireless efforts as a pimp seems shockingly endless.
Conspiracy theories flourish when two conditions are met: People have no faith both in their leadership and in the veracity of the information they are being provided. The ever increasing partisanship of our government and news organizations is a sure prescription for the sort of deep distrust that now grips our nation. The rage against our smug and unaccountable elites, which helped to propel Donald Trump to the presidency, drives even the most level headed to share insulting and unsubstantiated rumors, which is a sort of grim revenge for those who otherwise feel both powerless and voiceless. It is sad we feel so hateful toward our own government and elected officials, but it is even sadder still that our rage is more than justified. The average American has spent many decades being fed stupendous loads of half-truths and outright falsehoods. There are only so many official lies we can be forced to swallow before we finally choke, and this seems the breaking point for many.
Mr. Epstein’s decades of recruiting young and vulnerable young women for the sexual pleasure of men often old enough to have been their fathers—or even grandfathers—is also an indictment of the moral rot of our society. The insistent and disturbing use of the flesh of the young to entertain the old is now so commonplace that we no longer even notice how sickening are the many degrading uses of young female bodies in movies, music, fashion, television, and advertising. It is little wonder so many pre-teen and adolescent girls are subjected to physical, emotional, verbal, psychological, and sexual abuse and come to see drugs, alcohol, suicide—or simply the wearied and wearying acceptance of their cruel lot in life—as their only way to escape. This is damage that will follow today’s frightened young girls into their embittered adulthoods of yet more abuse and self-harming behaviors.
How did Jeffrey Epstein get away with this international sex slave trade for so long? The sad and simple answer is that it is easy for abusers to hide in plain sight when their predatory actions differ only in degree from that which we tolerate on a daily basis. The question is why we don’t speak up—or act out—when we see or hear unacceptable conduct toward women, whether they are young, old, or in between. Is our silence indicating some degree of culpability?
My answer would be both yes and no.
Yes, it would be nice if more people who see or strongly suspect criminal activity and abuse took the time to speak up. Theoretically, we are responsible to—and for—one another. However, what most adults clearly understand is that reporting your concerns tends boomerang right back on you. Businesses shove a code of conduct in front of you because it provides some plausible legal defense when they are caught—and woe to the one who ratted them out if they still work for the company. Employees in government and public agencies usually live behind layer upon layer of job protections that render them immune to firing or meaningful discipline under all but the most egregious circumstances—just ask any public school that has tried to discharge an incompetent teacher. If you report a crime, it is fairly certain the friends or family members of the criminal will soon be harassing you—or worse. To accuse someone with wealth or power is the most self-destructive action of all; you can count on them using their connections and their teams of lawyers to club you into surrender.
No, Americans don’t accept or support child abuse—or the commission of a thousand other crimes or injustices—but most have us have learned the sad lesson that our outrage changes little because those with power and wealth know how to use our legal, governmental, and economic systems to insulate themselves from accountability and consequences. We are thrilled when a Jeffrey Epstein is arrested, a pharmaceutical executive is sued, or wealthy parents paying for their children’s seats at elite colleges are caught because seeing our system of justice actually act against our elites is like spotting a unicorn—you sit up and take notice simply because it is so vanishingly rare.
It would be great if more Americans spoke up when we see or hear about actions that are unconscionable or outrageous, but those who do are likely to get a lot of grief and few thanks. Most people have bills to pay and families to raise, so they learn to simply look away. Moreover, our moral compasses have been dulled by constant exposure to the cruel, the perverse, the shocking, and the reprehensible.
Our daily lives in America today have become one long and unending White Bronco Chase that ultimately leads nowhere, and we cannot reclaim our lives and our nation until we finally refuse to tolerate it anymore.