The Case of Rambling Will Self

Police encounters can be very frightening experiences, particularly when they bring a child’s sexual integrity or his relationship with a parent or friend into question. It’s important to remind ourselves of the emotional toll that unfounded suspicions and false accusations of child abuse have on children. Writer Will Self is correct when he describes as abusive “exposing my son to the spectacle of his father—who was guilty of nothing—being grilled by the police on the roadside as if he were engaged in a perverse activity.” 

Writer Will Self

The suggestion that a child has been molested can be extremely unsettling to children, whose imaginations are almost infinite and understandings of such matters unsophisticated. The McMartin preschool case (1983-1990) is instructive in this regard. Many adults believe to this day that they were sexually molested as children because of unfounded suspicions and false accusations, manufactured suspicions and accusations in which the police played a key role. The police, often through the act of “merely gathering information,” caused the children to believe they were the victims of sexual abuse. (The McMartin case is not unique, but one of several cases in which the state has suspected adults of child molestation without evidence and in the course of investigating traumatized children with lasting and debilitating false memories.)

Self and his child are lucky the police didn’t separate them and interrogate the child outside of the father’s presence—or worse, submitted the child to a violating medical examination. As the McMartin case demonstrates, the police are quite adept at convincing people, especially children, that things happened which did not happen—and then perpetrating the violations themselves. The police are notorious for manufacturing evidence to justify suspicions. This is the problem of the presumption of guilt and demanding suspects explain themselves. Self knows full well that even the act of questioning a father over sexual abuse can traumatize a child. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t understand this and think it’s just fine for the police to stop and question parents and their children for no reason or on obviously absurd suspicions.

In fact, today, I encountered a person who believes that the police were right in questioning Self despite having no evidence of any wrong doing. Not content with characterizing such police actions as acts of responsibility, the person went further and made Self out to be a bad father for rambling with his child. Given that human beings have been rambling with their children for literally tens of thousands of years, for days and weeks and months on end, how a father in such an outing with his child could be criticized is beyond me. What on earth could be the motive for making such a normal human activities as rambling and camping seem untoward?

What happened to Will Self is the consequence of a world in which civilians are treated as suspects with the expectation that they need to explain their relationships and their actions to the authorities. This is precisely the opposite of what defines a free society. In a free society, when the state has no evidence that persons are doing something wrong, then the state is not allowed to interfere with their travels in any manner. The police have no business knowing who you are, who you are with, why you are with them, or what you have done, are doing, or planning to do. One of the most important fights in which you can engage right now is the fight against the presumption of guilt and toleration for the interference of government agents in our lives.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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