All this for a DNA mismatch: the extradition of American John Mark Karr from Thailand, the media horde recording his every move, and the tax dollars spent on another false lead in the 1996 murder of a child beauty queen. But wait. Something beneficial might actually come from this spectacle.
Precisely because of the intense coverage and actual extradition, this case could serve to deter pedophiles who travel to child-sex havens such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Costa Rica. At the very least, it can educate businesses, governments, and citizens about the serious problem of trade in children for sex and men who travel abroad for such acts.
Admittedly, this publicity looks like the faintest of silver linings. But in considering the enormity of this destructive practice, deterrence and education are vital to making progress – just as they are in, say, the war on drugs.
Hundreds of thousands of children are victimized by adult sexual predators, particularly in Southeast Asia and South America. These youngsters may be forced into prostitution, or filmed or photographed for pornography. Or they may be orphans or schoolchildren beguiled by trusted grown-ups.
Law enforcement (when it exists) is up against an array of causes that seem insurmountable: poverty that leads families to sell children into sex rings; cultures that condone marriage at a very young age – and may not consider, for instance, sex with a 14-year-old as disturbing; "sex tours" facilitated by the Internet, travel businesses, and organized crime; and corrupt officials bribed to look away.
As a result, successful prosecutions of child-sex tourists are rare. John Miller, who directs the US State Department's people trafficking office, told the Associated Press earlier this month that the US government has extradited and convicted 29 Americans for abusing children since 2003. That was when the US adopted the "Protect" Act, which provides for a sentence of up to 30 years for any American who has sex with someone under age 18 – at home or abroad.
Twenty-nine cases? Can this even qualify as law enforcement? But talk to people trying to combat this scourge, and they'll praise Washington for its efforts and leadership.
Before 2003, for instance, the US successfully prosecuted only one significant case of an American child-sex tourist, says Mohamed Mattar, director of the Protection Project at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The difference before and after the 2003 Act "is huge," Mr. Mattar exclaims.
Such a generous characterization indicates how valued even small steps are. And the world is beginning to take such steps.
Slowly, countries are beefing up their laws (the Philippines is one example). Some countries and nonprofits are warning tourists via billboards, brochures, and customs forms that pedophilia is a crime. And about 100 travel companies from 18 countries have signed a "code of conduct" in which they promise to educate their employees to be alert to, and report, suspicious behaviors.
The underlying causes of the child-sex trade won't soon disappear. Which is why one hopes that small steps can leave large footprints.