INSIDE THE 'SATAN SCARE' INDUSTRY - THE DEVIL MAKES THEM DO IT - While nation's cops chase demons, taxpayers get burned
By: Debbie Nathan
Are secret cults of devil worshippers recruiting America's youth to wreak mayhem and murder? Are high schools riddled with organized covens training teens to molest toddlers for Satan? Does listening to heavy metal music and playing Dungeons & Dragons lead to suicide and homicide?
Put questions like these to El Paso police Detective John Mummert and he's apt to give you an oh-please-do-we-have-to-go-through-this again look. Mummert started investigating such claims in the early 80's after the police got calls from anxious parents who'd heard rumors. A local evangelical group was also spreading the word that El Paso was a national mecca for Satanists (the proof, some said, was that if you poked a stick through a globe at Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem, it would come out in Texas.
Mummert and his colleagues were promptly dispatched to "ritual crime" seminars, classes aimed at law enforcement authorities and taught mostly by other cops, therapists, preachers and by born again Christians claiming to be former high priests or escapees from unspeakably sadistic ritual-torture cults.
The seminars, which have burgeoned nationally during the past decade, offer police and other community professionals continuing professional education credits for listening to shocking claims that devil-worshipping conspirators kidnap, sexually assault or kill tens of thousands of children annually yet leave no evidence. They also hear that the music of rock groups such as KISS and AC/DC turns kids into Satanists, that fantasy role playing games lead teen players to kill themselves and each other, and that Satanism and "occultism" in general predispose people to crime and thus constitute a grave threat to the future of American civilization.
This means, the lecturers say, that citizen interest in just about any non-traditional religion, including paganism, Wicca, santeria, voodoo or brujeria, should be monitored to discover who is about to break the law. Further, any crime scene, including one as seemingly innocuous as an underpass defacing with pentagram graffiti, should be evaluated in a special way, as an occult scene. To this end, ritual-crime seminars dispense handouts replete with calendars of "sacrificial" holidays such as Halloween and with inventories of evil symbols, including the venerable peace sign, now said to have little to do with peace and much to do with the "devil's claw."
When he finished his first ritual-crime classes, Detective Mummert remembers thinking, "Oh boy! All this is happening? We need to take care of it!"
He and a partner began surveilling Rio Grande River marshes, reported by the evangelical group as sites of robed ceremonies and ritual murders. "We would actually go out for days with covert equipment to try to catch these people in the act," Mummert remembers. He also hung around high schools trying to ferret out covens and investigated reports from teenagers and women that they'd seen babies sacrificed or had themselves been mauled and raped by Luciferians.
After a couple of years of this, Mummert was disgusted. In the schools, the only suspicious activity he ever uncovered was "kids wearing pseudo-Satanic rock group T-shirts and putting their emblems on notebooks and lockers." As for purported murder witnesses and torture victims, "Once we told them, 'OK, get in the car and show us where the sites are,' they couldn't find them. We've investigated each claim and never found a damn thing."
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Mummert's failure to un-earth Satanist conspirators or their victims is typical of law-enforcement experience throughout the country. According to researchers such as anthropologist J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara, that's because the devil worshipping mafias simply don't exist. Organized Satanist groups such as the San Francisco based Temple of Set and the Satanic Church have minuscule memberships, numbering perhaps a few thousand, and they've remained stable for years, Melton says. These groups condemn killing living beings or having sex with children. And there is no evidence that they commit such felonies.
There are documented serious crimes where the perpetrator invoked Satan, serial killer "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez is an example. Such assaults can be horribly vicious but are quite rare. A recent study by the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion found that, of more than 1 million violent crimes committed during 5 years, only about 60 has Satanic overtones. None showed evidence of conspiracy. Indeed, the FBI has never seen murders carried out via rational planning of the main purpose of fulfilling prescribed Satanic ritual. Many, though, were committed by people who were mentally ill.
Then there are teenagers, kids who do the kind of mischief the authorities barely blinked at back before they started worrying about the Devil. For years, adolescents have been listening to loud music and sporting hairstyles and clothing to match. The more wayward have defaced walls, toppled gravestones, broken into empty houses and churches, trespassed into private lands, built bonfires, set fires. Some have even slaughtered animals and mutilated themselves, acts long considered secular signs of emotional turmoil, family dysfunction or mental disturbance.
Lately, though, much of this behavior is tricked out with graffiti and verses about pentagrams, "666" and words spelled backwards, such as "Natas" and "Redrum." To many adults, this depressingly nihilistic rhetoric reflects a depressingly nihilistic age. Others who have studied it doubt that it constitutes more than teens' latest effort to scandalize elders who, these days, no longer shock easily.
The police who give ritual-crime seminars are indeed shocked, and they're not the only ones. Increasingly, law enforcement audiences are joined by school counselors, child psychologists and teachers at workshops that promise far more titillation than an auto-theft or IQ-testing class ever could. The teachers earn several hundred dollars lecturing that Ozzy Osbourne songs cause suicide and Smurf cartoons lead tots to the Prince of Darkness. After a bit of such talk, some students look skeptical. Most others, though might as well be at a tent revival.
IN PURSUIT OF SATAN
Robert Hicks is one cop who sees nothing amusing in all this. Now an analyst with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice, he is a former cop who worries that ritual-crime seminars are fueled by the same fundamentalist Christian impulses that underlie current efforts to censor offensive art, music, and books or to ban abortions. He describes the phenomenon in his book, IN PURSUIT OF SATAN: The Police and the Occult.
I learned of Hicks' research a few years ago while I was writing about day-care sex-abuse scandals in which I became convinced that the accused teachers weren't guilty. Some have been convicted anyway, mainly on the testimony of small children who seemed to truly believe they had been assaulted during some coven's rites.
In the case I examined, discovery material suggested that investigators, therapists and even parents had implanted fantasies into the children's memories. One driving force behind their zeal was the belief, again without evidence, that the defendants were devil worshippers. This was because Satanists, according to the ritual-crime seminar dogma, are said to infiltrate nursery schools to propitiate the Devil by sexually terrorizing children, all the while cleverly concealing the entire business.
I first heard this bizarre claim at a seminar in El Paso a few years ago. An assistant district attorney who helped organize it also told the press that "witchcraft has been with us for hundreds of years. Look at Salem!" The teacher for this class was a self-admitted former drug addict, prostitute and mental patient from California who claimed she was imprisoned as a child in a cult that aborted fetuses from her womb and ate them. According to the FBI and many psychiatrists and anthropologists, such claims are probably fantasies arising from sloppy therapy and hypnosis, much of it done by Christian fundamentalists. None of this came out at the seminar, though, and by the end of it, the teacher was discussing with gasping local school officials the need to seize The Satanic Bible from high school students and the advisability of "beat-(ing) the shit" out of them.
I subsequently fell in with Hicks and an informal network of social scientists who are researching the country's current Satanism scare and its incursion into the teaching, child protection, mental health and law enforcement professionals. Because the paranoia is now so deeply ensconced, Hicks has found it necessary to assemble reams of data debunking the claims of those he calls "cult cops," assertions that the media and public often unquestioningly accept.
Take Dungeons & Dragons, for instance. No ritual-crime seminar is complete without details about how fantasy role-playing games lead bright teenagers to obsession with Satan and suicide. The main promoter of this theory is Pat Pulling, whose 17-year old son, Bink, shot himself, she says, "after a Dungeons & Dragons curse was placed on him." Pulling founded Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD) and tours the cult-seminar and TV infortainment circuit, using her son's suicide and others as proof that role-playing games should be banned.
What she doesn't say is that prior to their deaths, the adolescents she identifies showed signs of depression and emotional disturbance having nothing to do with Dungeons & Dragons. Pulling also fails to mention that several public health studies, including one by the Federal Center For Disease Control, find no compelling evidence of a connection between fantasy games and teen suicide.
Heavy metal music also takes a drubbing as cops enlighten audiences about "backmasking" or subliminal paeans to Satan that you hear only if you play your albums backwards (example: "Christ, you're the nasty one, you're infernal!") Seminar teachers cite backmasking claims as factual. But again, studies show that most are perceived only by listeners who've already been told what they'll hear, and that's only assuming they've somehow figured out how to play the music backwards.
And even if such messages do exist, there is no scientific evidence that they affect listeners. But cult cops attribute all manner of mayhem to heavy metal. They abridge stories of young men who shot themselves while wearing headphones, for instance, but omit details about their problems with drugs, alcohol, parents and depression.
Homicide also plays big. One popular ritual-seminar for example features a clique of Missouri adolescents who in 1987 murdered their friend, then pleaded insanity brought on by their involvement with Satanism via heavy metal music. The jury disagreed, in part because it came out that the ring leader had tortured animals since early childhood, his partner had grown up in a violent home and all the boys were heavily involved in drug taking and dealing. But cult-obsessed cops regularly overlook such elements preferring to fixate on grimoires and record albums.
FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit agent Kenneth Lanning scoffs at this. If police looked into a teen murderer's room, he says, besides Judas Priest music, "they'd probably find a Bible, too. But no one would write that down in his notebook."
Lanning points out that far more crimes have been committed in the name of God than Satan. Some Italian mafiosi wear crucifix jewelry, some priests molest kids and the "Jonestown" mass suicide was instigated by a Protestant preacher. "But we don't call their crimes 'Christian' crimes," Lanning points out. Ritual-crime seminars don't either, but they do regularly bash Third World religions as santeria. A syncretic, Afro-Christian religion, santeria is indigenous among poor people in many Latin American coastal areas. Since many of those regions' economics are now based in drug trafficking, it is hardly surprising that many narcotaficantes also happen to practice santeria, even when they immigrate to the U.S.
But ritual-crime teachers claim that santeria itself leads to the dealing, even though nothing in the religion mentions drugs. This illogic was reinforced two years ago on the Texas-Mexico border when a group of marijuana runners in the thrall of a charismatic Charles Manson like leader slaughtered an American college student and put his body parts in a cauldron. The leader was a self proclaimed practitioner of a branch of santeria. No matter that the religion never calls for killing humans or that anthropologists concluded that the leader was a psychopath who invented his own rites. To excited cult cops, the incident proved the danger of ethnic occultism.
Mexican-Americans' misdeeds have also been linked to their religion. When a Texas Chicana who kidnapped an infant last year was caught with the baby in her car, border patrol agents also found vials of colored oils and Spanish prayers. One agent told the press the woman was a "Satanist" into child sacrifice. Subsequently, FBI investigators discounted Satanism entirely concluding instead that the woman kidnapped the baby because she was emotionally disturbed, couldn't bear more children and felt "compelled to mother." She had probably bought her folk Catholic religious items at a Mexican herb market.
KEEPING THE FAITH
The border patrol agent who decided the woman was a Satanic killer probably learned the theory from cult cop teachers, most of whom have no academic training in comparative religion or other disciplines related to the topics they present. Many, such as Boise, Idaho police officer Larry Jones, are fundamentalist Christians who urge that faith be combined with law-enforcement. Jones co-edits FILE 18 NEWSLETTER, which he says goes to thousands of law enforcement officials and "community professionals" nationwide. FILE 18 regularly serves up reports from cult cops and press about animal mutilations, vandalism and gruesome homicides that the magazine links with "cult motivation."
It also advises that "the only true and lasting solution to devil worship or Satanic involvement is a personal encounter with true Christianity and with the central figure of that faith, Jesus Christ." This crusade is echoed in texts such as STING SHIFT, a popular law enforcement guide to investigating bunko games. Satanism, the book advises, is a scam, and during an investigation, "if a cop is in a head-to-head confrontation with the Prince of Darkness, that cop had better have the 'defeater of Satan' on his side as well as every bit of spiritual armor and assistance available. Christian police officers (are) prepared to be on the cutting edge of the fight against crimes."
But if the Prince of Darkness isn't causing all those crimes, what's really worrying the cult cops?
One subtext for the angst, Hicks thinks, is the country's latest experience with involuntary cultural pluralism. As joblessness and poverty shift Americans to new communities, the displaced, as well as those who stay put, end up side by side with recent arrivals from the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia. Most white Americans learn about their new neighbors' religions from sensational news articles and TV shows. The popular media harp on ominous sounding rites such as chicken sacrifice and trance states. By calling such practices "Satanic," ritual crime seminars add to xenophobia.
Satan panic also seems fueled by widespread anxiety about the breakdown of the traditional family and gender roles. Thus it's not surprising that the "victims" are supposed to be children and teens. Historically, fears about rapid social change have often focused on imagined threats to the purity and innocence of the youth. In past decades, the villains were "communist," out to corrupt children with Elvis music, UNICEF Halloween cans and integrated schools. Today the same worries are articulated in inquisition-cum-postmodern language, as when anti-abortion protesters in Vermont recently passed out leaflets calling a woman's health clinic a "coven of lesbian women."
Hicks finds this new rhetoric predictable, given that one in three adult Americans considers the devil a "personal being" and that evangelical churches and their millenarian theology are flourishing. UC Santa Barbara's Melton believes much of the currant hysteria over occultism emanates from church leaders' tendency to invoke fear of the devil as part of their authority.
To do that, they breathlessly describe Satanist's perverse sins. But whose descriptions are these? Historically, anatomies of Satanism have emanated mostly from the imaginative literature of conservative Christians, who intricately detail devil worshippers putative atrocities in the process of denouncing them. With their Jungian tenor, many of these tales seem to express primeval fears of society's "others." Stories of Satanists ritually slaughtering, bleeding and cannibalizing their children, for instance, appear to be modern variants of the "blood libel" first made by Romans against Christians, then by Christians against Jews and others they judged guilty of heresy.
PROTECTING CHRISTIAN VALUES
Heresy apparently still rankles many Americans: witness the intense effort recently to outlaw criticism of the government as expressed by flag burning. For Hicks, medieval heresy has been replaced by the contemporary doctrine of "civil blasphemy," the belief that we can identify "things so sacred that they must be protected by the state from irreverence and challenge."
To cult cops, the family and Christian morals are sacred. Therefore, not just behavior but thinking should observe certain moral absolutes including the recognition of literal evil. Accordingly, these days, a toppled cemetery cross is apt to get much more investigation time than a toppled stop sign. After all, the graveyard culprits have attacked Christian values, so they must be Satanists.
When police teach these notions to parents and to professionals working with children, free speech often goes out the window. In Pasadena, Texas, school officials have banned clothing depicting "the occult."
Meanwhile, parents in several states have demanded that books dealing with folklore and mythology be removed from school libraries and classrooms, complaining that text about Hades and hexes are Satanic. Librarians worry now that titles with "witch" in them or books mentioning the occult are replacing abortion, evolution and secular humanism as the focus of community censorship efforts, many of which are fueled by ultra-conservative Christian groups such as the American Family Association (AFA).
Censorship isn't the only threat readers face. A National Association of Chiefs of Police homestudy text recommends that officers visit public libraries to record names of patrons who have borrowed books on the occult. Librarians in Florida and Louisiana report that this has already happened.
Such civil liberties violations will be extended if cops exchange files and tips about people who merely sell new-age literature and gadgets or those who play Dungeons & Dragons or those whom self-proclaimed ritual abuse "survivors" finger as the secret devil worshippers who molested them years ago.
ON THE LOOKOUT
How far could these practices spread and still be generally accepted? The answer depends partly on the extent to which the cult cops moral conservativism combines with liberal rhetoric about issues such as "bias crime." The notion of bias or hate crimes has gained increasing popularity lately in law enforcement and legislative circles, and Congress has supported a bill to keep statistics on crimes motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity. No new crimes have been defined by this effort, but constructing a new category of offense means that new definitions may soon follow in criminal law.
Spray-painting a swastika on a synagogue might then be as something more than vandalism and punished accordingly. Likewise for chalking a pentagram on a belfry. Some ritual crime seminars are now lumping Satanists with white supremacists, skinheads and others labeled "hate groups." If occult crimes enter the bias crime rubric, cult cops may claim that law enforcement needs new strategies to contain them.
Already three states have enacted criminal laws specifically addressing "cult" activity. Idaho, for instance, now bans "ritualized child abuse," including threatening death or serious harm to the families and pets of minors or "mutilating" children as part of a ceremony. (Predictably, the law is mum about Sunday School preachers who threaten tots with eternal damnation and hellfire. It does however, specifically exempt cutting infants' penises with knives, i.e. circumcision.)
Hicks worries that such legislation, and the attitudes that underlie it, will create baseless investigative targets: the housewife who works part time at a day-care center, the immigrant who practices santeria, the kid who heads the local fantasy game club or garage band.
At worst, cult cops will harass and even falsely accuse innocent people. At best, they've already used taxpayer resources to chase delusions. El Paso detective Mummert still shakes his head when he remembers "the hundreds of hours we put in" trying to find west Texas' devil worshippers. "Oh God!" he says, "it was expensive time! And what did we come up with? Your typical Friday or Saturday night kids in the desert. Beer drinkers."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Debbie Nathan is a journalist who lives in El Paso, Texas. She is author of Women and Other Aliens: Essays from the U.S.-Mexico Border and a contributor to The Satanism Scare.
IN THESE TIMES
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