Giving the Polygamists Exactly What they Want?

The authorities who rounded up the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saint women and children and carted them away from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in vans probably fit the profile of do-gooders everywhere: at once sanctified and sanctimonious as they commandeer others' lives and moved them in the right direction. "Success in Eldorado" shouted Texas headlines.

But this two-sided coin of virtue and self-righteousness also describes the FLDS psyche. These polygamists carry a history of persecution, and a predisposition toward suffering for their religious beliefs. In their minds—and here I speak from experience—persecution and prosecution validate their righteousness and prove their sainthood.

If this round-up focused solely on child abuse, perhaps we wouldn't be so inclined to bring cultural and religious implications into it. By most standards, those who inflict sexual abuse on children belong at the bottom of humanity's trash heap, especially if the perpetrators are "gnarly old men" (as one journalist described them) commandeering the tender bodies and malleable lives of child brides. Think of Humbert Humbert and Lolita. Think of the Taliban stoning women who read books or show their faces in public. Now think of a fifteen-year-old dressed in prairie garb and a "crown of queenhood" hairstyle, made pregnant by a man three or four times her senior. Whether the patriarchal regime is communist or fascist or theist, child abuse is child abuse is child abuse.

I studied and wrote about child abuse, enough to learn the importance of gently untangling the family bonds that imprison victims and victimizers alike. For even abused children tend to love their parents and want to preserve their families, sad and violent though they may be. The responsible state must use care to not dismember any healthy family ties, or the trauma of abuse takes quantum leaps.

As a child of polygamy, I have personally experienced the state as a perpetrator of child abuse. The way the FLDS child abuse ring was stopped gives me pause. Police invaded the YFZ on thin evidence—a bogus phone call that gave police permission to rip Americans (granted, weird, fundamentalist Americans) out of their homes. The rounding up of women and children echoes the 1953 raid of Arizona law enforcement on the polygamous border town of Short Creek, a political disaster Arizona only recently has begun to redeem. The men went to jail, but at least the plural wives got to stay with their children. The polygamists stoically endured their persecution, in fact, felt ennobled and strengthened by it, thus setting an isolated and insular stage for the likes of Warren Jeffs.

Which leads me to wonder what sort of man will appoint himself "prophet" when the Texas justice system wearies of its crusade and the fundamentalist children find their way to a new home in the underground.

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