Subject of the hour: the day care sex abuse hysteria from the late 1980's to early 1990's. This was a moral panic touched off by an increase in day care centers and parents becoming insecure about them. A mentally ill grandmother and a schizophrenic alcoholic brought up some rather crazed accusations involving quite spectacular stuff - orgies, torture, child pornography rings, secret hidden tunnels, livestock and pet butchery, blood drinking, feces eating, Satanic worship and rituals... some daycare providers were even had a Satanic power of flight. All of this (minus the flight, which was generally ignored) was held credible by people across the nation, law enforcement officials and courts who rigged or forced convictions, and of course parents who knew 'in their hearts' that this had been true all along.
Of course, it wasn't. Kids were bullied into confessing, the lives of those accused were completely ruined, and, more subtly, I suspect some actual abuse cases were pushed under the rug once they all got the taint of the hysteria. And now arrogant young folk like me look back on this and say, "What were they thinking?"
Moral panics. They're fascinating things, really.
This article from the New York Times gives an interesting take on the whole thing. A choice quote:
In the prototypical witch hunts in Europe and in the Massachusetts colony, the accused were often scapegoats for some calamity -- disease, bad harvests, the birth of a deformed child. In the witch hunts of the 80's, there was no such injury to be avenged or repaired. There was, however, a psychological need to be fulfilled. Our willingness to believe in ritual abuse was grounded in anxiety about putting children in day care at a time when mothers were entering the work force in unprecedented numbers. It was as though there were some dark, self-defeating relief in trading niggling everyday doubts about our children's care for our absolute worst fears -- for a story with monsters, not just human beings who didn't always treat our kids exactly as we would like; for a fate so horrific and bizarre that no parent, no matter how vigilant, could have ever prevented it.
Many of those of my generation (I'm 23) may look at this with bemusement, as something 'our parents' worried about, something irrelevant, even, if an era post-9/11. But then again, most of those who fell for this craze lived through or had parents who lived through at least one World War; we are all equally susceptible to this brand of madness, I suspect.
Though I have to admit, as a writer, my first thought isn't so much "What can I, or we as a society, do to stop something like this from happening again?" so much as "How can I use this in one of the stories I'm writing?" I take comfort in the fact that my immorality is a shared one.