While authorities are still trying to figure out if the man who says he killed Etan Patz actually did so, the rest of us are still living with the legacy of paranoia from this heartbreaking case.
The disappearance of 6-year-old Etan on his way to school 33 years ago in Manhattan isn't the only reason American parents are so overprotective. The media has played a big role in obscuring the fact that American society is extraordinarily safe for children, who are mainly at risk from family members and family automobiles. Stranger abduction is extremely rare.
Yet society remains suffused with paranoia about the young, a paranoia reinforced in public institutions by our profound litigiousness. I hadn't fully appreciated just how far these trends had gone until I got the paperwork for the engineering summer camp my son will attend at a major university we'll call Sprawling U. The program is for rising high school juniors and seniors, although my son managed to get in as a rising sophomore.
I'm not bragging; the point is that, aside from my guy, most of the "kids" in this program are old enough to drive. And few are likely to be juvenile delinquents; for Pete's sake, these are young people motivated to spend part of their summer studying engineering!
Yet the program's policies make it sound more like Sing Sing than Sprawling. Resident assistants "will escort the students to both breakfast and dinner each day. . . . Students are restricted from being on any floor or wing other than the one assigned without an accompanying Summer Conference Resident Assistant. . . . Students will not be discharged to parents in waiting cars. . . . Students will be escorted between the residence halls and other areas of the campus. . . . Students are never to leave the residence hall without signing out and may not leave unless accompanied by a staff member. Students found outside the building without supervision will be dismissed . . ."
Students must wear their ID card on a lanyard at all times when out and about. But it's not as if there will be no fun; "age appropriate" movies are promised, although of course they'll be anything but. And campers can count on attending, since "during the nightly social/recreation period, Conference Housing students will not be permitted to remain in their rooms."
So, are all summer programs organized by a retired warden from Alcatraz? Well, no. It happens that my young Edison has a twin, a literary man who will attend the summer writing program at an arty little college in New England. Its paperwork was a model of enlightenment by comparison. It does lay out some policies, but sensibly concludes: "The kinds of students who come to the Young Writers Workshop typically possess a sense of personal responsibility and cooperative goodwill that minimizes the need to prescribe or enforce rules."
To some extent, the two programs are almost comically representative of what the British writer and physicist C.P. Snow called the Two Cultures -- science and the humanities -- and the black gulf that separates them. Arty College takes the trouble to specifically bar incense, for example, which is not something many of the budding engineers will think to bring to Sprawling U.
Each of these programs expresses a different side of American culture, yet both had lawyers working overtime on ludicrous releases from liability. Sprawling requires me to attest that "I am fully aware of the actual and potential risks of personal injury (including serious injury and death) inherent in any activity." And while the attorneys for Arty College may greet us in Birkenstocks, they also demand not just a release but that I "fully and forever agree to indemnify" the place against any claims arising from my kid's participation.
Ah, summer. If only Huck Finn could see us now.
Daniel Akst is a member of the Newsday editorial board.