In the film Minority Report, the premise is that the authorities have three people with precognition, and when those “precogs” foresee a murder the police are sent to arrest the perpetrator before the crime is committed. A murder has to be predicted by at least two of the precogs, and the title of the movie comes from what they call a situation where the third contradicts the other two, presenting a “minority report”.
Of course, we don't do that sort of thing, for real. We don't arrest people because we think they're going to commit a crime. We can watch them, and we can protect those we think will be their victims. But we can't arrest them if they haven't committed a crime. Unless, of course, we think they're terrorists, in which case our president has declared that he can do whatever he wants with them. But this commentary isn't about that.
It's about the question of whether it's right to arrest someone because he thinks he's committing a crime, though he isn't actually doing what we're arresting him for. Huh? Doesn't that sound weird?
Suppose you meet a young woman, age 19, and you like her, and you decide you want to have sex with her. You do the sweet talk, she goes home with you, you get your wish. And then you get a visit from the police, because it turns out that she isn't 19; she's 15, and she told her parents. And you've committed a crime. It doesn't matter that you thought she was 19, it doesn't matter that you thought it was all legal. What matters is that she is in fact 15, and you are now a sex offender.
Now let's turn it around.
Suppose the authorities are looking for pedophiles. They get a 19-year-old agent to get on some Internet chats and pretend to be 15. You take the bait, you do the sweet talk, you get her to agree to meet you. When you get there, you suggest sex. She suggests arrest.
But here's the thing: you haven't done anything illegal. You thought you were doing something that's illegal — you thought you were soliciting sex with a 15-year-old. But the fact is that you were propositioning a 19-year-old, and there's nothing illegal about that. How can you be arrested, when you have not actually committed a crime?
This technique is used all the time. In general, I support getting these people off the streets and to psychiatric help. I support protecting the children they would prey on.
But I question the technique's adherence to our ideals. We do not arrest people for what they intend to do, but only for what they do. How can we square that with this situation? How can we arrest the guy for intent, but not deed?