One of the country’s best legal journalists, Dahlia Lithwick, has written a great, all too short, piece in Slate (cross-published in this week’s issue of Newsweek) on the parallels between two of the most pressing juvenile cases in today’s headlines: the removal of children by the Texas Child Protective Services from the Yearning for Zion Ranch and the trial of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen and Guantanamo detainee who was pulled off the battlefield in Afghanistan at age 15 for allegedly fighting against the US military. “In both cases,” she writes, “when it came to treating children like adults and adults like children, the government has been hopelessly confused. Considered side by side, the two cases reflect our troubling legal tendency to overprotect the teens we deem to be victims and overpunish those we consider dangerous or violent.”
One way to reconcile the confused legal decisions about the children of the Texas polygamists and Omar Khadr is to recognize that the legal system operates in broad caricatures when it comes to children, manifesting a disproportionate fear of violent kids as wholly out of control, while treating all victims as though they are incapable of protecting themselves. Maybe all of this legal confusion is just a function of the dual nature of American teenagers, who always somehow seem too old and too young for their own good. Or maybe it just reflects our own uncertainty about whether to believe too broadly that teens are perfect and pure, or dangerous, unguided missiles.