The news that Jeffrey Epstein, a well-connected financier who a decade ago in Florida served a disconcertingly lenient 13-month sentence for soliciting prostitution, faces federal sex-trafficking charges is making headlines. But the story is only partly about Epstein, who has pleaded not guilty, himself. Rather, his tendency to collect powerful friends makes it tempting to view his arrest as the beginning of a tale in which many of Epstein’s world-famous friends with dubious reputations could meet their comeuppances.
Approach this temptation carefully. As part of a global reckoning with sexual exploitation and sexual violence, it is important to learn who enabled Epstein, who excused him and who may even have participated in what prosecutors allege was an ugly and predatory pattern of behavior. A true reckoning, though, won’t stop with people whose downfall we might find convenient or satisfying on partisan grounds. If we really care about stopping sexual exploitation and sexual violence, we should be prepared for whatever may come of this investigation, no matter whose character is impeached and no matter how misplaced our trust and confidence may have been.
Epstein’s connections are the stuff of which global scandals and string-heavy conspiracy-theory diagrams are made. Epstein flew former president Bill Clinton and actors Kevin Spacey and Chris Tucker to a series of African countries on his private jet in 2002 “to work on democratization, empowering the poor, citizen service, and combating HIV/AIDS,” as Clinton put it in a statement at the time. Donald Trump praised him as a “terrific guy” later that year, though in 2015 a Trump spokesman said he knew Epstein only as a guest at one of his resorts.
Epstein was friendly with Prince Andrew, a relationship that continued after Epstein served his Florida sentence for solicitation. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz has defended Epstein in court; Alexander Acosta, then a U.S. prosecutor and now the labor secretary, signed off on Epstein’s plea deal in his solicitation case. Internet sleuths spotted Epstein’s longtime confidante Ghislaine Maxwell in a photo from Chelsea Clinton’s 2010 wedding. Entries in Epstein’s address book, which was among documents in a 2015 court case, ranged from rocker Courtney Love to Israeli politician Ehud Barak.
Given Epstein’s ties to various members of the global power elite, it is tempting to think of the charges against him primarily as a weapon to be used against others. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used Epstein’s arrest to slam Barak. Some in the United States have called for Acosta to step down. The Week asked “If Jeffrey Epstein gets nailed, will he bring any of his powerful friends down with him?” And a gleeful Russia Today column noted the tendency by politicians on either side of the political divide to refer to Epstein in terms of his relationships to Trump and Clinton.
But there are good reasons not to approach Epstein’s arrest in these terms beyond the risk of playing into foreign hopes for American disunion. Some who knew Epstein socially may have been unaware of the sordid private life that prosecutors allege. But the only hope for making sure that men like Epstein aren’t tolerated by the powerful and wealthy is for everyone who did enable him to suffer the appropriate consequences.
Any exceptions send a dangerous message: that if you’re a star they let you do it, that if you just donate to the right fundraiser, or back the right candidate, or make available your private jet on the right occasion, everything will turn out just fine.
If you want to actually cure a disease, you need to burn it out entirely. We’ve all watched enough zombie and epidemic movies to understand that the metastasizing monster hidden away in the closet will always reemerge to wreak havoc. Defending Clinton rather than insisting that his accusers get a fair hearing may have preserved one presidency, but it cost Democrats some long-term credibility and possibly two other chances at the White House. Evangelical Christians are determined to see their own damnable bargain with Trump through to its long-term conclusion.
And we ought to know by now that no party, anywhere, has a monopoly on vice. Supporting Planned Parenthood or funding a professorship named for Gloria Steinem did not insulate Harvey Weinstein from rape allegations. Becoming a born-again Christian as a teenager didn’t stop former House speaker Dennis Hastert from sexually abusing students he taught and coached at an Illinois high school. There are no beliefs, no magic talismans, that can ensure that the only people who are sexual predators are ones with whom we have other profound disagreements.
In this sense, seeing who primarily views Epstein as a way to advance their own political interests or to resolve long-standing hatreds is useful and clarifying. Those people are not truly committed to the struggle to end sexual exploitation and sexual violence; their interest in these subjects and in the victims of these crimes has clearly defined limits.
That’s the thing about lancing a boil: you can’t do it strategically, making sure the ooze only flows in one direction.