Monday, May 2, 2016

The death of American childhood freedom

Freedom for at least three generations of American children died on October 28, 1973.  

That was the day that 11-year-old Jonathan Kushner of Tampa, Florida rode his bike to a 7-11 to buy candy for his younger brother David.  On the way back, he was struck in the head with a drill bit, gagged, and stuffed into the trunk of a car by two men, Johnny Paul Witt and Gary Tillman.  Jonathan suffocated in that car trunk.  

Upon discovering Jonathan's dead body in that car trunk, they took it out, mutilated it, and then buried it in a shallow grave.  It was about a week later that Johnny Paul Witt led authorities to Jonathan's body.  

After reading Alligator Candy, written by that younger brother, David Kushner, I concluded that the day Jonathan Kushner was abducted and murdered, freedom for American children was murdered also.

The murder didn't happen right away.  Rather, it was a slow suffocation, much like Jonathan may have experienced in the trunk of that car.  It began in Tampa, Florida, when parents would not allow their children to go out to play after Jonathan's murder.  And who could blame them?  All he did was hop on a bike, ride to the 7-11 . . . and he never came back.  Who knew if that could happen to another child as well?

But, as David Kushner writes in Alligator Candy, media attention to other missing children cases only fueled the fire.  There was Etan Patz in 1979, in New York, and then Adam Walsh, in 1981, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  More recently, you had Elizabeth Smart's abduction and rescue, and that of Shawn Hornbeck (discovered when another boy, Ben Ownby, was abducted by the same man that took Shawn), and the discovery of Jaycee Dugard 18 years after she was abducted.

I grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the 1970's.  I was one of those children who rode her bike around the neighborhood and, from the time I was five, walked to school alone, just four blocks.   My sister and I went door-to-door taking orders for Girl Scout cookies.  Jonathan Kushner was abducted and murdered just twelve days past my tenth birthday.  I remember the TV news doing a story on his disappearance.  I remember when the news bulletin came on saying that his body had been found. When the announcer said that "the boy was murdered", I plugged my ears.  I didn't want to hear any more.  

My parents never told me that I couldn't go outside after that.  I still rode my bike, still played outside, still went to friends' houses.  But the slow strangulation and suffocation of freedom was beginning.  I don't remember hearing about Etan Patz, but Adam Walsh was abducted and murdered in the summer of 1981, right before I went away to college.  I saw his parents give an appeal on Good Morning America, the very day that his head was found in a canal in Vero Beach.  That case, perhaps more than any, slammed into the consciousness of the American public and brought home that yes, this can happen to your child, your children.  Combine that with a number of prominent child abuse cases in the early to mid-1980's (most notably, the McMartin preschool trial and the Country Walk trial), and the death of freedom was almost certain.

Today, kids don't go over to each others' houses to play.  They have "play dates".  It took me a year to allow my son to ride a bus to school because I feared that something would happen to him.  And the only reason I allow him to ride a bus is because it's a special ed bus that drops him in front of the house.  He would not be riding a school bus if he were not in special ed.  (I freely admit to a bias against school buses.  Some of my worst experiences of being bullied were on a school bus where the driver either could or would not do anything to stop it.)  Had my son lived within walking distance of his elementary school, I probably would not have let him walk there.  I would have walked him there and back or driven him.  

We live in a culture of fear, fueled by media attention to the few monsters that are out there and that do prey on children.  We fear their abduction by strangers, when most abductions are by a non-custodial parent.  We fear their sexual abuse by strangers, when most abuse happens at the hands of someone the child knows and trusts.  We won't let them play alone, because of fear of what might happen if we are not watching our children every single second.  We have protected and bubble-wrapped our children to such an extent that anxiety among children, teenagers, and college students has risen to unparalleled levels.  

And I'm just as bad.  I admit it.  My son has autism.  I have several good reasons to be careful because my son does have a disability.  And even though I can sit in judgment on the generations of parents that have overprotected their children, there are crimes committed against them.  Jonathan Kushner lies memorialized in a Tampa, Florida cemetery.  The show America's Most Wanted can be called a memorial to Adam Walsh.  The phrase "Code Adam" in many retail stores means "missing child".  While Elizabeth Smart has used her abduction experience for good, by advocating for similar victims--especially those victimized by human trafficking--the scars remain, I'm sure.  The same with Shawn Hornbeck and Jaycee Dugard.  It's only been relatively recently that Etan Patz's parents have finally learned what happened to their son when he disappeared.  And there are the many who have disappeared without a trace, and the many children who have been murdered by strangers.

So what do we do?  How do we keep our children safe without bubble-wrapping them and smothering them in protection?

Right now, I have no answers.  I can only teach my son to navigate the world as best he can while keeping an eye out for people who might hurt him. 

The men who abducted and murdered Jonathan Kushner were tried and convicted.  

Gary Tillman will die in prison.  

Johnny Paul Witt was electrocuted on March 6, 1985.  

When they read the list of charges that Witt had been tried and convicted of, and that he would be executed for, they could just have easily have included, "the murder of American childhood freedom".

Just my .04, adjusted for inflation.

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