We are still living in the world that Walsh, and “America’s Most Wanted,” helped build: a paranoid populace that believes crime is everywhere and can only be solved through relentless policing.
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John and Revé Walsh’s lives changed on July 27, 1981, when Revé took her six-year-old son, Adam, to the Sears department store in a mall in Hollywood, Florida. Adam had asked to visit the toy department while his mother browsed the lighting and home furnishings section just a few aisles away. As Revé told ABC’s Nightline in 2011, “I said, ‘I’m going right over here to the lamp department,’ and he said, ‘OK, Mommy, I know where that is.’” After Revé bought her lamp, she went to collect her son, but he was nowhere to be found. A frantic search of the store ensued, followed by what some observers called “the largest manhunt in the history of Florida.”
Two weeks later, after an appearance on Good Morning America, Revé and John learned that their son’s severed head had been discovered in an Indian River County canal, approximately 1,205 miles north of the scene of his disappearance. Just as the Walshes’ search for their missing son had unfolded on national TV, their expressions of grief beamed to television sets nationwide.
The couple channeled their highly publicized sorrow into a growing national movement focused on child safety, “victims’ rights,” and “law and order.” John Walsh, specifically, emerged as a high-profile advocate for missing and exploited children and for more aggressive policing and punishment. Conveying paternal strength and righteous anger on television and elsewhere, Walsh spoke for Americans who were “sick of the level of violence in this country” and wanted “to do something about it,” as he told a 1995 congressional subcommittee. In his co-authored 1997 book, Tears of Rage: From Grieving Father to Crusader for Justice, Walsh discussed the activism he undertook immediately after his son’s murder. “I was a man possessed,” he wrote. The book also revealed Walsh’s contempt for inept law enforcement officials, bureaucratic red tape, and the “slap on the wrist” supposedly enjoyed by those who “rape little girls and … little boys.”
As the host of Fox’s America’s Most Wanted from 1988 through 2011, Walsh would fuel the nation’s crime panic and reinforce his position as the country’s foremost proponent of harsh anti-crime measures. With its grim, gritty tone and dramatic reenactments of violent acts, the show sought to induce fear in the American public, alerting viewers to rare, sensational events and thus distorting their conceptions of crime and danger. Walsh’s status as a bereaved parent and a well-known anti-crime crusader also propelled him into the halls of power (despite his professed distaste for the “backstabbers in the world of politics”), where he bent the ear of every U.S. president from Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama.
Today, 40 years after the murder of Adam Walsh and with a reboot of America’s Most Wanted now airing on Fox, Americans find themselves in the throes of another crime panic. While murders in some major U.S. cities have increased since the pandemic began, New York City is on track to end the year with one of its lowest murder totals on record, and overall crime rates across the country have declined. Crime statistics are also notoriously unreliable and contested, given certain inconsistencies in reporting across agencies and populations. Because many U.S. police agencies have yet to report their data to the FBI this year, “it’s not immediately clear how much, if at all, homicides increased in smaller cities or small towns across the country, or how 2021’s national homicide total compares to 2020,” CNN noted last month.
Despite these issues with reporting, and despite the fact that today’s murder and violent crime rates remain well below rates seen in the 1980s and 1990s, many communities are suffering acutely amid the economic and social dislocations of the ongoing pandemic. The violence of Covid-19 is multifarious: The virus ravages the body, while the economic and political uncertainty left in its wake has led to the violence of eviction, houselessness, anti-Asian harassment and abuse, hyperpolicing, and mass shootings. The communities most deeply affected by this syndemic deserve safety and accountability, as do all communities.