Sunday, July 20, 2008

Amber Alert Commentary

This is totally off-topic

Today I was taking a break in Starbucks when I read an article in the local (Boston) paper about the Amber Alert system. I was surprised.

For those of you who aren't up-to-date on paranoid mothers, the Amber Alert is when the government posts state-wide panicked messages about kidnapped children to every media available.

I don't like it.

Not because of what it is, but because of the fact that it doesn't work efficiently. It just makes people feel good about themselves and their politicians. Lemme explain.

The Amber Alert was designed to help find children who are kidnapped by deranged strangers with bad things in mind. However, most deranged-stranger kidnappings resolve (usually poorly) within a few hours, long before the Amber Alert is issued.

Along the same lines, the Amber Alert is usually issued for children kidnapped by family in custody battles gone awry. This is because deranged family members are far more common than deranged strangers. Unfortunately, the Amber Alert is not designed to help in these sorts of situations, so it's not very effective.

You may have seen the apologist ads for the Amber Alert. They generally say something like "95% of Amber Alerts end with the child being found." This is a little like claiming "95% of my blog posts end with the internet still being operational". The Amber Alert almost never has anything to do with the safe rescue of the child: it's usually the police tracking down the deranged family member who kidnapped the child.

I also don't like the way that Amber Alerts are posted, because they imply that the child was whisked away by a deranged stranger. This lets moms get all worked up about the number of kidnappings... but it's just a distraction. Your child is at more risk from people you know than from strangers, and thinking otherwise means your worry will be pointed in the wrong direction. (Your child is probably not even at any significant risk from people you know, either. But if you're going to worry, worry about the right things!)

Anyway, I like recovering children from kidnappers, I think it's good. But I don't really like the Amber Alert: it's just theater. It has successes, but a more carefully planned and researched system would have more successes. With, you know, less panic and misinformation.


I was reading this Boston paper and... they said the same thing.

I was absolutely stunned.

Okay, they didn't say the same thing. They presented a "fair and balanced" view that aired both sides of the question. But that they even mentioned my side is astonishing. It's pretty rare for a paper to question theater because, let's face it, news media is 99% theater.

I was... surprised.

Of course, the rest of the paper was basically fluff. I guess they have a quota.


TickledBlue said...

Personally I despise the whole economy of fear that pervades our society. Watching a carpet cleaning commercial with my partner last night I commented about the use of toddlers on a 'dirty' carpet being _subtly_ used to sell the product that 'deep' cleans the rug pile. My partner hadn't even noticed.

Craig Perko said...

Yeah, I feel the same way. Fearmongering helps nobody I care to help.

Textual Harassment said...

I've seen a lot of amber alerts but I don't remember ever hearing whether the kid got found or how.

I would think that the deranged family member kidnappings would be helped *more* by amber alerts because they have more information to give out about the kidnapper.

Craig Perko said...

The amber alerts just give out details as to the appearance of the child and the car they left in: it's a desperate attempt to find some hints when there's no other clues.

The police are pretty good at tracking down relatives: they have names, detailed descriptions, license plate numbers, credit card monitors, lists of likely places they would go, and usually recorded fingerprints and a significant rap sheet.

I'm not saying it doesn't help, I'm just saying it doesn't help MUCH.