Slate editors squabble about the Idaho senator's bathroom arrest.
When the news of Sen. Larry Craig's arrest and guilty plea for lewd conduct broke Monday evening, it set off a vigorous e-mail squabble among Slate editors. Some of us thought the arrest was justified, others were appalled, others were amazed by the arrest report; others were merely baffled. Usually we try to wait until our ideas are fully baked before we publish them, but in this case, we thought the half-baked (and quarter-baked) arguments would interest readers.
Dahlia Lithwick: "Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, was arrested in June at a Minnesota airport by a
plainclothes police officer investigating lewd conduct complaints in a men's public restroom, according to an arrest report obtained by Roll Call Monday afternoon."
John Dickerson: Yes, I've been trying to e-mail everyone the story. It's quite detailed about the signals men apparently send in bathrooms.
Will Saletan: "Craig tapped his toes several times and moved his foot closer to my foot. I moved my foot up and down slowly." Is moving your foot up and down a signal of encouragement? Somebody must have a web site that explains the code.
Jacob Weisberg: Shouldn't we stick up for the poor guy? I can't believe it's a crime to tap your foot on the bathroom to signal that you want to hook up, as opposed to actually having sex in the bathroom.
By the way, isn't this what they got the LBJ aide Walter Jenkins on? Though I think it was in flagrante in that case.
June Thomas: Amen, the police are forever entrapping guys in public restrooms for peeing while gay. Or rather, peeing while wearing nice loafers.
Dickerson: I agree it seems ridiculous, but isn't it the public nature of the thing that's the problem? You don't want the full blown act, as it were, happening where toddlers are being changed out of their pull-ups?
Saletan: Can someone explain the mechanics of how two people are supposed to commit a sex act in a stall where legs are visible from the knee down? Do people just walk in and not notice that four legs are in the stall?
Bill Smee: Just one of several privacy challenges that must be overcome.... At least the roller bag at the front of the stall blocks any direct walk-ins on the conjugal commode.
Dickerson: I'm a fan of someone sticking up for Craig. There's more inappropriate airport behavior in the security pat down line.
Jack Shafer: I'm all for sex. Straight. Gay. Solo outings. Orgies. But I can understand why there are laws against "lewd conduct" in public places such as bathrooms and why they're enforced. I'm not going to stick up for Craig.
Plotz, my cubicle-mate, asked why Craig would want to have sex in an airport. Then, channeling Saletan, he said, "Oh, it was a layover."
David Plotz: Having just read the arrest report, I am unimpressed. Craig didn't disturb anyone, made very subtle signs and only touched the guy in response to a positive signal from the cop. If they want to stop disturbing and disorderly conduct, they need to find more disorder than this.
I understand why they want to stop a bathroom from becoming a den of blowjobs, but this seems pathetic. Also—there is little deterrent effect in doing this generally. It is an airport, so by definition it caters to people in transit, who aren't going to know that it has become a police target.
Dickerson: Seems to me you should have to go a bit beyond tapping your toes.
Shafer: He pleaded guilty to lewd conduct.
Plotz: Jack, for a libertarian such as yourself to say that a guilty plea is the last word is crazy. You, of all people, know the power of the state to bully and coerce in the enforcement of its laws. This is the case of an excessive law and a frightened arrestee.
Shafer: So all guilty pleas are bogus? I don't follow your logic. I also don't think the arrest qualifies as entrapment under the law. Would you be persuaded to change your position if you learned that the lav in question was a well known anonymous sex refill station?
Plotz: Of course not. He is guilty—but of a fake crime. The fact of the guilty plea does not somehow end discussion. He pleaded guilty because he was scared and embarrassed about the public revelation. The problem—my libertarian friend—is that the government has put on its books a law that serves very little public purpose, and has given the police free rein to enforce it with heavy hands (and tapping feet). You should be objecting to the excessive power of the state being harnessed to create and enforce laws that serve so little purpose.
Weisberg: I'm sure it is a pickup spot—which is why a police decoy was there trolling for weary travelers. And I have no problem with the cops arresting people for having sex there—or for standing at the door 24/7 to discourage it. But I don't think propositioning someone should be a crime.
Of course you plead guilty in this situation to minimize the publicity, whether you think you're guilty or not. The punishment is a fine—vs. what would have been a much bigger national scandal.
Chadwick Matlin: Has anyone gotten a comment from Minneapolis' airport police about the previous complaints in this stall? How frequently were wide stances disrupting travelers' routines?
Shafer: The lavatory in question was so busy that airport authorities had to use air traffic control computers to queue users to their seats.
Dickerson: But apparently the bathroom was not so busy that a guy could peer through the crack in the stall door for two minutes without someone saying, "Move along, buddy." I'm devolving into dorm room hypotheticals here, but if a guy looks into a stall for two minutes and the person being spied upon doesn't say "shove off," isn't that presumably the initiating signal for the peeping tom to start the toe tapping?
Thomas: But remember, the cop's been in the stall for 13 minutes. He's sitting there waiting to be propositioned.
Weisberg: Look, there's a cop sitting on a john in a smelly airport bathroom and he only gets to leave when he arrests somebody. I'm saying if he can't make it sound any worse than that, it really wasn't that bad.
Shafer: June, so you're saying a cop shouldn't police lavs?
Thomas: I'm saying we should focus on finding Osama Bin Laden in Waziristan. I think there are laws policemen take way too much pleasure in enforcing, and this one is right on top. How many people challenge (much less win) charges like this?
I can think of no less enticing a place for cottaging than an airport restroom at noon. For one thing, we all know that there are cameras everywhere in airports. I have no expectation of privacy anywhere in an airport. We're all taking the policeman's statement to be entirely truthful—and I'm not so sure of that.
Shafer: I'm fine with public lavs being no-sex zones and for police to enforce such bans. Just because you think some cops like to enforce this law isn't an argument against enforcing it.
There's a whole culture of anonymous sex by men who don't identify as gay, which I assume is the senator's case. They don't want to go to gay bars or other places to meet men because they're married, they're hung up, they're priests and don't want to be found out. They crave the anonymity. (When I ran City Paper we did a big feature on the culture of anonymous sex in public places in the District.)
Thomas: I'm sure you're right about the senator not identifying as gay.
Personally, I think cottagers are out of their minds (such is the damage caused by homo-hating, societal and internal), and I have no brief for harassment of bathroom-users who simply wish to use the facilities or can think of no other place they'd rather hang out for a couple of hours when in the airport.
Photograph of Larry Craig by Alex Wong/Newsmakers. Photograph of Larry Craig on Slate's home page by Charles Dharapak/AP Photo.