"Cockroach!" "Pervert!" "Paedophile!" More than 50 people have gathered outside a house in the middle of a quiet residential street. Some are yelling insults, some are peering through the living room window. A man with a megaphone whips up the crowd. "If the government can’t - or doesn’t want to - protect our children, then we have to do it ourselves."
That night, a window was smashed, red paint, tomatoes and ammonia were thrown into the house, and the word 'Paedophile' was spray-painted in red letters outside.
This feels familiar. In my native United States, public sentiment against paedophiles and sex offenders can take extreme forms. A federal law requiring sex offenders to be publicly registered almost encourages people to take the law into their own hands. Rehabilitation is widely believed to be impossible, and fear drives a fierce desire to protect children from perceived ‘monsters’.
In Texas and Missouri, judges have sentenced sex offenders to post signs outside their houses saying: ‘Danger: registered sex offender lives here’. A new law in Florida requires sex offenders to wear a GPS tracking device for the rest of their lives, even after serving time in prison. And in all 50 states, the public has the right to know where sex offenders live.
Now this mindset is gaining ground here in the Netherlands. The scene described above took place last weekend in Hengelo, a city not far from the German border. But unlike similar scenes in the US, the crowd was not pursuing a convicted sex offender. The resident of the house says he has never had a sexual relationship with a minor. So why is he being harassed?
Thirty-nine-year-old Marthijn Uittenbogaard is the treasurer and public face of the paedophile association Martijn. For the last 29 years, the group has been trying to gain acceptance for paedophilia in Dutch society.
The crowd outside his house is after him because of his ideas, which can be shocking. In a recent interview in the newspaper nrc.next, he said:
"Parents treat their children like they own them. But they really belong to everyone… These days, children are way too overprotected. They go to school, play a sport or some other activity - everything is very organised and distant. It makes a paedophile relationship totally impossible."
Mr Uittenbogaard thinks all laws limiting sexuality should be abolished, and that children should be able to be sexual with anyone at any age. Needless to say, his ideas and those of his association have not been accepted by mainstream society.
In its early years, paedophile organisation Martijn had some success in winning social acceptance. Prominent writers, politicians and other public figures openly supported paedophilia. A few prominent figures even admitted to being paedophiles. Justice Minister Korthals Altes submitted a law proposing to lower the age of sexual consent from 16 down to 12 years old. It didn’t pass.
Times have changed, and the organisation is now under fire. The Justice Department may be forced to bring charges against Martijn after it was revealed that eight current or former administrative officers had criminal records involving sex offences. The current chairman is in jail on charges of possession of child pornography.
Other developments have hardened the attitudes of an already sceptical Dutch public against the arguments for paedophilia. Revelations of widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church have angered many. So too has the case in Amsterdam in which at least 87 very young children were sexually abused by a day care employee and his life partner.
So now private citizens are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. In addition to the constant barrage of insults and threats directed at Mr Uitenbogaard in Hengelo, another member of Martijn was driven from his home in the northern province of Friesland. And a writer who merely supported Martijn’s right to free speech has also had the windows of his house smashed and ‘Paedophile’ painted on his front door in red letters.
That this country has not embraced Martijn’s view of the world is understandable. But the question is whether the Netherlands really wants to embrace the American example when it comes to vigilante justice.