As Phoenix police later confirmed, it wasn’t trafficking.
It also wasn’t the first time Senator John McCain’s widow has peddled hysteria surrounding the issue of human trafficking, an umbrella term that covers either forced labor or forced commercial sex. (Prostitution doesn’t count – it’s consensual, albeit illegal, but more on that in a sec.)
During a segment rife with misinformation about the subject of human trafficking, McCain, who is co-chair of Governor Ducey’s Human Trafficking Council and board chair of the powerful McCain Institute for International Leadership at ASU, explained that about a week ago, she had flown into Phoenix from a trip she had taken when she spotted something awry.
Police said McCain described the adult female as of Asian descent, and that the child was mixed race, Asian and African-American.
She went on to repeat that the woman was “waiting for the guy who bought the child to get off the airplane.”
It served as an example, she said, of why folks should adhere to the admonition promulgated by the feds in the wake of 9/11: “If you see something, say something.”
Watson and Gaydos wolfed down McCain’s story like it was a box of Goobers, though the tale sounded hinky from the start. Why would someone planning to sell a child for sex schedule the swap in a crowded venue wired with more cameras than a Vegas casino, and crawling with federal and local cops?
And why would a woman “of a different ethnicity” than a child she was with be an indicator of criminal activity? McCain’s adopted daughter, Bridget, is from Bangladesh and obviously of another ethnicity than her mom. How many times have they been stopped by the law on suspicion of sex trafficking?
Fortunately, McCain’s bit of ethnic profiling didn’t hold up to scrutiny. After KTAR ran with a story on its website touting McCain’s trafficking claim, inquiring minds wanted to know more.
As a result, police released the following statement 48 hours later:
“On January 30, 2019 at approximately 1:26 p.m., Phoenix Police officers assigned to Sky Harbor International Airport conducted a Check Welfare on a child at the request of Mrs. Cindy McCain. During the Check Welfare, officers determined there was no evidence of criminal conduct or child endangerment.”
It was a stunning smackdown. McCain not only was certain that the child was being trafficked, she offered details about a man flying in to pick up his prey. Could she have been misinformed?
Not long after police released the statement, McCain tweeted a mea culpa, admitting that she had been mistaken and commending the police for their “diligence.” She also apologized if anything she had said distracted people from the “If you see something, say something” mantra.
McCain’s inability to mind her own business in this instance and her reliance on bigoted stereotypes would be bad enough, but like too many in the United States for whom human trafficking is a cause celebre, McCain is guilty of peddling myths and hysteria over the issue, helping perpetuate what sociologists refer to as a “moral panic,” based on irrational fears, misinformation and sometimes outright prevarications.
Take the erroneous assertion that the Super Bowl is a mega-magnet for sex trafficking — a persistent, perennial falsehood that is trotted out every year as the big game draws near as an excuse for law-enforcement rousts of sex workers and their clients. That’s because “sex trafficking,” which according to federal statute involves either minors, or adults involved in the sex trade through force, fraud, or coercion, is routinely conflated with prostitution by activists, police, and the media.
However, the idea that hordes of prostitutes and pimps descend pregame on Super Bowl host cities has been debunked more times than the Phoenix Lights UFO, by such publications as Politifact, Snopes.com, and Sports Illustrated. Numerous, rigorous studies have disproven this conspiracy theory. The one most cited is a massive 2011 report by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, a worldwide anti-trafficking alliance of more than 80 non-governmental organizations, which concluded that, “there is no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around large sporting events.”
In 2014, McCain called the Super Bowl “the largest human trafficking event on the planet.” A year later, a report commissioned by the McCain Institute from ASU’s School of Social Work found “no empirical evidence” that the Super Bowl caused an increase in human trafficking as opposed any other day or event.
Regardless, McCain and many others cling to this fable, though McCain definitely knows better. While on KTAR, one of the hosts asked her if the Super Bowl was the largest sex trafficking venue on the planet.
“I believe so,” she replied, adding, “Some could argue that the World Cup is in the same league as that.”
Indeed, according to McCain, sex trafficking is happening all over, including in malls and “in your own neighborhood,” she told Mac & Gaydos.
“I mean, [it’s in] every public venue, and private as well. You see it pretty much everywhere. You just have to know what to look for. And that was what I had to learn in the beginning, was what to look for.”
Neither the FBI’s yearly crime reports nor reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics back up these assertions.
Yet, federal and state authorities are busy making sure that the public’s trained to spot human trafficking. Flight attendants, hotel workers, college students, you name it, are all being coached by group’s like the one McCain heads, Arizona’s Human Trafficking Council, which boasts that since 2014, it had “provided trainings and awareness presentations to over 31,000 professionals and community members statewide.”
This is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that there is often a racial element applied to identifying human trafficking, as McCain seems to have aptly demonstrated.
A recent Washington Post piece about McCain’s stab at playing Sherlock noted that it was consistent with other incidents, “in which parents of children whose skin color or ethnicity differs from theirs fell under suspicion from other travelers or authorities at airports.”
The piece cited cases in Arizona and Denver where parents were challenged because their kids were of different ethnicities or races. There have been many others, such as the 2017 case of an Asian-American woman detained for more than an hour in an airport by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol because a fellow passenger on her flight suspected that she and another woman were being trafficked.
Maybe this gaffe by McCain will give media types some pause before treating McCain and her cohorts with such deference on the issue.