Fighting Evil Face to Face
A Dark Journey Into Terrible Places
By Iain Bruce
Originally published in The Sunday Herald, February 2000.
Also available in Russian (http://bit.ly/2k1Lh9j)
On a rotting mattress in a dank, stinking cesspit apartment in the bowels of Manhattan, a ten-month-old baby lies screaming, her roars of pain the result of repeated, systematic rape and sodomy. When she is found, literally dripping with gonorrhoea, it is not because the system has tracked her down nor the result of a citizen hearing her cries and calling for help; it is because her father, whose own flesh was torn by the ferocity of his assault, had left her to seek medical help for his own revolting ills.
Welcome to reality. Welcome to streets where pimps lie in wait for runaways to rent them out at five dollars a night, to a world where inhuman torture cannot be diluted with words like dysfunction and paedophilia, where clinical phraseology cannot disguise the brutal truth. Welcome to ground zero—the fetid battleground of Andrew Vachss.
Since setting eyes on that bloodied infant girl during the course of his enquiries as federal investigator into sexually-transmitted diseases, 57-year-old Vachss has conducted a savage personal crusade against child abuse in all it's forms, working as the head of a maximum security juvenile detention centre in New York, social worker and special investigator for Save the Children in Biafra during the Nigerian civil war before becoming America's first attorney to exclusively represent children. This is not a lucrative specialism, but one comfortably subsidised by his income as one of America's best-selling crime writers.
"The reason why is simple," he growls. "I hate people who prey upon children and I have devoted my life to doing everything I can to stop them. The system doesn't love children, it's endangering them, and if you saw what I see every day, then you'd hate it as violently as I do. I have looked evil in the face—how could I ever turn away?"
His are blockbusters not written for the purposes of vicarious entertainment alone however, but to serve as the vanguard for the one-eyed attorney's personal crusade, a textual rallying call spreading his message of zero-tolerance for child abuse to a global audience.
"In life there are the commandos, the enemy and the non-combatants," says Vachss, "and in my view there's far too many of the latter. If you allow yourself to be engulfed by consumerism, to stand by and ignore the hard truths, then the world will not have been enriched by your presence. You have to leave footprints behind, even if it's only by standing up and saying 'no—this is not acceptable.'"
Combatant is indeed the word when it comes to Andrew Vachss. Deeply committed and permanently angry, he maintains an uncompromising approach to the grisly field of child abuse that takes no prisoners and shoots malingerers on sight. Few people would take any matter to such extremes, and many would point out that in cases such as the above, where tragedy struck without warning, there is little that the system or the community can do except take retrospective action, but the author is bitingly dismissive of such attitudes.
"There are a lot of things you can do. Look at the people who work on the front line—teachers and social workers—they get paid worse than garbage workers," he spits. "That's sheer stupidity, because for that kind of money you're never going to get the best and the brightest in where it really matters. If your government or your people are serious about protecting children, they should start urgently re-ordering the way they spend the resources they have."
As an example of what people can do, Vachss points to the National Child Protection Act of 1993, legislation compelling American child offenders to submit their names and whereabouts to a national register. Now widely known as the Oprah Bill, Vachss succeeded in having the law passed by persuading the viewers of Oprah Winfrey's television show to write to their representatives declaring that this was the single issue upon which they would decide their vote at the next election. Millions did, and he suggests that the same method now be employed worldwide to see an end to the attempted rehabilitation of child offenders, a liberal orthodoxy he regards with some contempt.
"I don't believe in the existence of paedophilia. If you feel the desire to molest a child that's sick, if you act on it it's evil. It's a different ball of wax. Imagine a couple of cops in the interrogation room, asking a suspect about an armed robbery, and he won't talk. Can you hear the cops saying, 'well, gee, John's in denial'? Is there an offence called armed robberia? These are child molesters. The fact that we have a pretty clinical term is simply a get out of jail card. What you do, and not what it's called, is what counts. And to steal a child's soul, which is exactly what happens, there is no greater crime. What options have we but to lock them up and throw away the key?"
His uncompromising, hardball approach has won Vachss more than his fair share of enemies. Released offenders who believed that their sentences had been tougher due to the presiding judge being a Vachss fan have attacked him several times—although the missing eye is the result of a childhood accident—and every day he is deluged by hate mail and threats in the shape of photographs of himself upon which the sights of a sniper's rifle have been drawn. Although this has forced him to live behind a screen of re-routed telephone numbers and PO boxes in a heavily fortified apartment staffed by a gaggle of ferocious mastiffs, the crime fighter feigns indifference to the dangers of his chosen path.
It is not just the paedophiles and the twisted abusers who have rallied against him however, with the approach that won the heart of the American people having also awoken the ire of the liberal elite. His unorthodox views on rehabilitation have revolted bleeding hearts everywhere, and a backlash arisen that slams both the crusader and his work as an exaggerated anachronism. Many US critics have slammed works such as Safe House as the product of a diseased mind, claiming that the plots Vachss unrolls in his self-styled guise of investigative novelist are wild enhancements of a milder truth, that paedophile rings do not kidnap children to trade them internationally and that the existence of child 'snuff' films, in which actual murders are captured for the purposes of vile entertainment, are a myth.
"These people are despicably stupid," he roars in response. "In 1987 I wrote a book in which paedophiles communicated over modems and the critics said I was crazy, that the plot was a product of my sick nature. Well, who's sorry now? This is ground zero; this is stuff you cannot make up. I mean, how can there be any dispute about the existence of snuff films? Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were convicted on the evidence of tape recordings they'd made of their murders for God's sake—do you think these kinds of people weren't going to upgrade when video technology got cheaper? Don't be so naïve; this stuff is happening whether you admit to it or not."
Witness to a multitude of horrors, in the bloodbath that was Biafra Vachss walked across the bodies of the dead when the corpses lay too thick to avoid it. I recall reading once of a man who had done the same, who wrote that afterwards he felt as if a little piece of his soul had died that day. "If you're wondering whether my nerve endings have been cauterised, I guess you could say that I don't have the full range of sensations anymore," he says. "Of course there are times when I feel like getting out but it's a question of focus—I cannot allow myself to be deflected."
Indefatigable, in Safe House the street crusader turned his attention to the ranks of neo-nazism, a growing problem worldwide. Unorthodox to the last, Vachss' take on the issue is that the children attracted to extremist groups are victims as much as anyone else, and he urges you to cast aside natural revulsion and think, really think, about what makes youngsters swap skateboards for swastikas.
"Most of these neo-nazis are just working class white kids who have been marginalized into becoming skinheads," he says. "What is to become of them? Do we just say 'screw them, they're fascists,' and surrender them to the enemy, or do we look at the facts, realise that distressed, disaffected children always join gangs and try to do something about it?"