Criminal Justice

Honoring Mollie Tibbetts’s memory with honesty

Over the Fourth of July weekend in 1996, I received a phone call alerting me to the disappearance of a 9-year-old girl who lived just outside of McChord AFB in Washington state. Then the supervising agent of the Tacoma office of the FBI, I deployed several agents to the local police department to assist with an investigation that experience foretold would not end well.

As a first investigative step, we identified all the registered sex offenders within an 11-block radius of the little girl's home. There were 49. Let that sink in for a moment. Investigators pull these records because girls and boys and young women typically are abducted in this country not for ransom, but for sexual attack that often results in death.

And that's what happened to our little victim. She was tortured, raped, killed and then casually disposed of like an inconvenient afterthought by a convicted rapist who lived down the street from her and never registered as a sex offender.

Since 1996, the number of registered sex offenders in the United States has more than tripled, reflective of a wildfire ignited against mostly children and women over the past few decades. Yet, when was the last time you heard a discussion about the causes behind this wildfire that is claiming more and more of our most vulnerable every year? When was the last congressional hearing? I don't know, either.

The violent cases, as unacceptably numerous as they are, are the extreme manifestation of a larger and growing abuse culture. In other words, it's even worse than most people think. FBI annual surveys of police agencies consistently report domestic physical and sexual abuse of women and children as the top crime problem across the country. Sadly, most of us know women in our own lives who have suffered abuse.

By the late 1980s, child pornography largely was eradicated in the United States. With the advent of the internet it now is completely out of control. Thousands of mostly men, from all walks of life and all sexual orientations, are arrested each year for producing and trading vile images and attempting sexual contact with children.

Another story of children being victimized by clergy emerges and we're shocked once more. We can stop being shocked. It's part and parcel of a larger disturbed mosaic. Children and women are being abused because there are growing numbers of abusive men. And we tolerate that abuse. We don't ask the question: why is there an increasing number of men who are sexually abusing women and children, and sometimes even killing them?

Whenever I participated in a search of a criminal's residence I always found two things - always. Unimaginable filth and pornography. Don't be fooled by Hollywood's insistent caricatures of intelligent criminals. They don't exist. And I don't recall ever arresting anyone who came from a loving, two-parent family. Either there was no father in the home, or there was an abusive parent in the home.

I'm not a data scientist, nor an academic researcher. I simply lived through the aftermath of disheartening violence and made observations of facts. Here are two that I believe are worth more attention than they are getting:

First, the dramatic increase in the number of sexual offenses and offenders, registered and not, coincides with two dynamics of pornography over the past 40 years: Its diminishing stigma and its movement from magazine racks and seedy video stores to the very devices we carry in our pockets and the TVs in our homes.

As a friend of mine once said, "Porn is now in the air that we breathe." It is being consumed by more people than at any time in history, feeding them a degraded view of women. When humans are objectified, violence always follows.

Second, 40 percent of children in America today are born to single mothers. Obviously, not everyone born and raised by a single mom turns out poorly. But nearly everyone who acts out violently has a dysfunctional or missing paternal relationship. Forty percent is an indicator of future violence.

These are sensitive topics that our society is nervously whistling past, unwilling to highlight because to do so looks an awful lot like moralizing, a mortal sin in our "enlightened" times.

And so, when vibrant, young Mollie Tibbetts became our latest sad story, our latest occasion to wonder, "What is going on?," our latest shuddering projection of our own worst fears for our own daughters, we once again had an opportunity to have an honest, root-cause conversation.

Instead, politicians and the media immediately focused on the immigration status of her alleged killer. That's certainly not something to be trivialized or ignored, since it makes her death doubly tragic. But it is still a deflection from the uncomfortable reasons why she and so many others have been killed. The number of predators among us is increasing. Pornography is their jet fuel. A malformed youth is their corrupted operating system.

Television media are right to cover stories such as Mollie's, but understand - while this may sound cynical - their motivation is more about ratings than seeking answers. The stories such as Mollie's that get coverage, through no fault of the victims, meet a certain profile. I know this because of my involvement in many cases with similar fact patterns on remote Indian reservations and in inner cities where nary a reporter was to be found.

Mollie's memory can be honored in deeper ways than an immigration issue or news cycle if her vibrancy and sweetness become emblematic of all the children and women suffering violence each year and, instead of gliding past the warning signs, we seek the truth no matter how uncomfortable. Otherwise, we can prepare ourselves for more stories that will break our hearts.

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.

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