The man who created Moral Panic
On August 12, 1958, Congress passed Public Law 85–623, an “act to prohibit the introduction…into interstate commerce of switchblade knives…” This law became commonly known as the “Federal Switchblade Act,” and it was the culmination of a concerted effort by lawmakers backed by an outpouring of public support that can all be traced back to an article published in Woman’s Home Companion in November, 1950. The author of this article, titled, “The Toy that Kills,” was Jack Harrison Pollack, and he was well-known for his overtly inflammatory articles that preyed on the emotions of his readers, mostly women, tugging at their maternal instincts and unashamedly feeding their base fears.
Jack Harrison Pollack wrote and published more than a thousand articles for numerous magazines and periodicals in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them with inflaming titles like “They’ll Steal Your Vote,” “The Shame of our Local Health Departments,” “Six Ways Your Vote Can Be Stolen,” “Do Drinking Fountains Spread Disease?” and “Too Many Babies Die.”
The Toy that Kills was not written to espouse the dangers of children carrying knives. In fact, Pollack doesn’t seem to have a problem with kids carrying knives in general. He only has an issue with the “threat to our children’s safety,” the switchblade knife. He acknowledges that knives have utility and that society shouldn’t try to stop kids from carrying them. He writes, “(Authorities) don’t want to deny boys their pocket knives. They know that a knife to a growing boy is as important as a lipstick to a young lady.” In just one of the many quotes in the article that are attributed to some vague, unidentified figure, such as this one that he says is from “one of the nation’s top law-enforcement officers,” (whatever that means) he writes, “In a person’s pocket, a switchblade knife is a deadly concealed weapon — as dangerous as a dagger and at close quarters as lethal as a loaded revolver.” The article, which is filled with unsourced, vaguely attributed, unidentifiable quotes like the one above, was clearly meant to inflame its readers and to drive them to action.
In one paragraph Pollack claims to have witnessed an actual switchblade murder on the mean streets of Philly:
“I had no idea myself until I saw a youth stabbed with one on a Philadelphia street. Two young men were fighting with their fists. Suddenly one of them reached into his pocket. A second later his hand held an open knife. He jabbed the gleaming blade into his opponent’s chest. As the blood flowed, women onlookers screamed.”
In another, he has a direct quote from a deceased victim of knife violence:
“Recently — in more innocent spirits — two teen-age boys at a high school dance in a Newark, New Jersey, suburb were playfully showing off with a three-inch switchblade. Accidentally one was shoved against the tip of the knife, which pierced his heart. “You punctured me, Jim, please take me to a drugstore,” the wounded youth moaned and collapsed. His seventeen-year-old companion was aghast. But his sorrow couldn’t bring his best friend back to life.”
The article is filled with anecdotal stories from all over the country that are completely unsourced with no names attached and no references listed. Stories that have direct quotes from one subject to another as if the author witnessed the interaction first-hand. Stories that are quite obviously completely fabricated by Pollack who knows there is no way for his 1950s readers to verify or dispute these stories.
“At almost the same time, in Newark, New Jersey, a thirty-five-year-old woman accused her husband of being unfaithful. Before he had a chance to explain, she angrily yanked a switchblade from her stocking and stabbed her husband in the heart. The next day he died. “If she had only hit her husband with a dish or a rolling pin instead!” mused a police official. “A switchblade isn’t something for anybody with a temper to have.””
Immediately after publication of the article, with nobody of intelligence able to discern the obvious lies and fabrications throughout it, U.S. states began to take action, with New York becoming the first to ban these dangerous weapons. Other states followed suit, and after the federal ban against importation in 1958, the mass hysteria spread around the globe, with countries all through Europe, Asia, and the Americas taking their own steps to pass laws banning switchblade knives. And none of it was based on any sort of reality, data, science, or even logic.
In case you haven’t seen an actual switchblade knife before, I happen to own one. Here is a regular, modern pocket knife, completely legal throughout the country, side-by-side with a dangerous and scary switchblade knife:
And here is a video where I show the difference in the way these knives open:
Warning: Graphic content not suitable to the faint of heart!
As you can see, these two knives are nearly indistinguishable. Why did Pollack feel the need to fabricate his way through a story attempting to rouse his readers to take action against switchblade knives? It’s hard to say. Perhaps he was simply inspired to grow his readership in any way possible, or maybe the editors of Woman’s Home Companion preferred sensationalism to journalism. It’s quite obvious from this article that there was a clear and shocking lack of journalistic integrity in those days, at least in the magazines where Pollack’s articles flourished, his audience apparently enraptured by his histrionic prose. Whatever his intent, the article worked. After its publication, and with the release of films like Rebel Without a Cause, 12 Angry Men, and the musical, Westside Story, the public had seen enough of switchblade knives to know that they were a menace to society. Driven with fear by Pollack’s closing statement, “…don’t wait, either, until a youngster — it could be yours — is murdered with a “toy” pocketknife” the entire world went crazy.
Representative Sidney R. Yates, speaking to Congress before passing the switchblade act, was clearly taken in by the national hysteria surrounding the “deadly” knives:
“Vicious fantasies of omnipotence, idolatry… barbaric and sadistic atrocities, and monstrous violations of the accepted values spring from the cult of the weapon, and the switchblade knife is included in this. Minus switchblade knives and distorted feeling of power they beget — power that is swaggering, reckless, and itching to express itself in violence — our delinquent adolescents would be shorn of one of their most potent means of incitement to crime.”
There’s no doubt that youth violence was a problem in the fifties, however, the switchblade knife was nothing more than a symbolism of that violence, a simple tool embodied in bloodshed by the media, and as such, it was targeted by activists who reacted on emotion rather than common sense.
When considering the Moral Panic created by Pollack against switchblade knives, it’s rather difficult to not draw comparisons to the current state of affairs with society’s Moral Panic about AR-15s. The AR-15 has become the weapon of choice for many of the most heinous mass shootings our country has witnessed in the last couple of decades, and as such, it has become bastardized by society. And yet, the AR-15 is nothing more than a symbol of gun violence. It’s not even the best choice of weapon if you want to create the most bloodshed, death, fear, and violence. A typical AR-15 shoots a tiny .223 round that, in many of its iterations, causes little damage when it strikes a human body. However, because the AR-15 has been used by so many shooters, it has become the target of activists and politicians who think that the murder problem of our country will disappear if the AR-15 is banned. They seem to have lost sight of the same logic missing in society in the 1950s. Banning switchblades didn’t curb youth violence, youths just continued to carry what were now illegal knives, or they just switched to similar knives that were legal. Banning AR-15s will just mean that shooters will choose a different type of weapon for their killing sprees. If I was writing this article sixty years in the future, I might write the previous paragraph this way:
There’s no doubt that gun violence was a problem during the turn of the century, however, the AR-15 was nothing more than a symbolism of that violence, a simple tool embodied in bloodshed by the media, and as such, it was targeted by activists who reacted on emotion rather than common sense.
Gersh Kuntzman is today’s version of Jack Harrison Pollack. In an article in the New York Daily News a few years ago titled, What is it like to fire an AR-15? It’s horrifying, menacing, and very, very loud, he writes the following lines:
The recoil bruised my shoulder, which can happen if you don’t know what you’re doing. The brass shell casings disoriented me as they flew past my face. The smell of sulfur and destruction made me sick. The explosions — loud like a bomb — gave me a temporary form of PTSD. For at least an hour after firing the gun just a few times, I was anxious and irritable.
Even in semi-automatic mode, it is very simple to squeeze off two dozen rounds before you even know what has happened. If illegally modified to fully automatic mode, it doesn’t take any imagination to see dozens of bodies falling in front of your barrel.
If you’ve ever fired an AR-15 you know what complete and utter nonsense this is. Squeezing off two dozen rounds requires a high-capacity magazine and 24 distinct and separate trigger pulls along with the corresponding “bruising” shoulder kicks, “disorienting” brass casings “flying past your face,” and “bomb-like” explosions. I’m pretty sure you can’t accomplish that “before you even know what has happened.” The AR-15 has one of the lightest kicks — a gentle tap to the shoulder — of any rifle you’ll ever fire. Youtube is full of videos of girls and boys under the age of 10 firing AR-15s with smiles on their faces, apparently unperturbed by this alleged bruising this full-grown man suffered from. The AR-15 is almost certainly quieter than every one of the handguns he claims to have fired, (loud like a bomb???) and definitely quieter than most other rifles, and his theatrical, melodramatic claim that he suffered PTSD after firing the weapon…let’s just say that did not sit well with members of our armed forces who took some issue with that, as seen in his retraction statement that was added to the bottom of the article.
Kuntzman’s attempt to summon the spirit of Pollack’s malicious writings through his hammy, histrionically contrived description of his experience firing the AR-15 have only one goal…to raise the ire of the ignorant readers of the New York Daily News by creating an emotionally distorted Moral Panic that will drive them to take action to ban these types of weapons that he sees as unnecessary and dangerous. His efforts to instill the image of “dozens of bodies falling in front of your barrel” should be completely transparent, yet a constant flow of disinformation and fear mongering about AR-15s by journalists and politicians alike would seem to indicate that it is not.
Magazines that publish articles like those by Pollack in the 1950s and Kuntzman today are blurring the lines between established and respected periodicals and sensationalist tabloids by their lack of editorial oversight or journalistic integrity. They care about nothing more than readership, and sensationalism-driven clicks and sales.
Moral Panic has reared its ugly head in numerous examples of legislation since Pollack started the trend. In the 1950s, Dr. Frederic Wertham went on a crusade to warn America about the dangers of comic book violence. He penned numerous articles, including “Seduction of the Innocent,” and “What Parents Don’t Know about Comic Books” in Ladies Home Journal. His completely unbased and unscientific, speculative assertions that comic books were a corrupting influence on youth, a public health problem, and a leading cause of juvenile delinquency created a Moral Panic that spread across the country. The Senate convened a special subcommittee to explore the matter, and legislation was enacted that forced government comic book censorship and “approval” stickers before they could be legally sold. At no time were any serious, scientific studies conducted; the subcommittee members relied almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence and “expert” testimony before coming to their conclusions.
In recent times, the media narrative that police kill minorities, particularly black men, at a higher rate than others, even that they have set out to intentionally murder black men as part of a racist crusade, has created a massive Moral Panic that is currently inflaming the public and dividing the country. This is a narrative that has been thoroughly and completely debunked by numerous scientific studies, and yet groups like Black Lives Matter and far-left media outlets continue to spew it, intentionally keeping America in internal strife as a means of forwarding their own nefarious agenda.
Most of the Moral Panic in society today seems driven by the political left, however, the right is just as guilty. After the 1 October shooting at the Route 91 festival in Las Vegas, bump stocks became the new Moral Panic of society. A device designed to help disabled veterans and target shooters enjoy their passion was bastardized by a murderer and society reacted in sadly typical fashion. President Trump quickly blamed Obama for the legalization of such a deadly and dangerous device, and ordered the Department of Justice to ban them. This ban was issued in 2018 and went into effect in 2019, requiring owners to destroy them or turn them in to the ATF under penalty of ten years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. And why? Because one person misusing something that was designed to be simply a tool created a nation-wide hysterical Moral Panic and politicians reacted. This ban was only struck down as unconstitutional a few months ago by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the legal battle is still ongoing.
Is there a difference between a spring-assisted-opening knife and a switchblade? Sure. The blade on a switchblade deploys a small fraction of a second quicker. The switchblade requires a very slightly less dexterous movement to open. And, it makes a slightly louder and scarier “snap” when it opens. (I get a form of PTSD every time I open mine, as well as visions of dozens of bodies falling under my deftly slashing hand as I cut my way through a crowd while the song, “Gee, Officer Krupke” plays in my head.) But are these differences great enough to justify one of the knives being completely legal while possessing the other one gets you sent to jail? That is quite hard to fathom yet that is our reality, thanks to the moral panic riled up by Jack Pollack’s article.
It’s really not until recently, more than 60 years later, that this fugue of nonsensical hysteria has finally begun to unravel. Although switchblades are still federally illegal to import or sell over state lines, most states have now repealed laws against them and made them completely legal to own and carry. I believe they are still illegal to own in 11 states (including Washington) with a couple others having some restrictions on blade length or concealed carry.
Moral Panic causes our society to react emotionally rather than logically to problems our nation faces. It causes us to legislate by fear, to act impetuously and impulsively when confronted with real, germane and critical issues. Whenever we make hasty, impassioned decisions based on an emotional reaction rather than a well-thought-out, logical, data-driven response to an issue, we are much more likely to get the solution wrong, and quite possibly to exacerbate the problem. So, what can we do about the detrimental effects of our emotional reaction to Moral Panic? The first step is recognizing and crushing the driving force behind this plague, namely the media and their incessant drive to generate clicks at any cost. By calling out and demanding an end to the nonsense of histrionic articles like the ones by Pollack and Kuntzman, we can calm the fear they’re attempting to inseminate in our psyche.
The second step is by electing more logical, intelligent leaders to Congress and the Presidency. Political media whores like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Marjorie Taylor Green, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump who thrive on bombastic speech and the susceptibility of their audience to Moral Panic need to be soundly defeated. We need a Congress that passes laws and reacts to situations by using logic, data, and a careful evaluation of facts rather than legislating through Moral Panic. Emotional reactiveness has been a massive detriment to our society and our country. It is the malevolent fiend that has fatefully led us through things like the Red Scare, wars on drugs and in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the implication of a stolen election and widespread voter fraud, and uncountable examples of unnecessary and detrimental Congressional legislation.
It’s time we defeated the sixty-year-old demon known as Moral Panic that was summoned by Pollack and nourished by panicky, emotional simpletons through the decades. It’s time we moved on from the era of reactionary politics and to an era of logic, science, and data helping us drive all of our laws and our decisions.
Pollack, Jack, “The Toy that Kills,” Woman’s Home Companion, November, 1950. https://docplayer.net/209786811-The-toy-that-kills-woman-s-home-companion-november-1950.html
The New York Times, Obituaries, October 2, 1984 https://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/02/obituaries/jack-h-pollack-69-author-of-books-and-1000-articles.html
Whitmore, Zac, “Why are Switchblades Illegal?” Blade Magazine. https://blademag.com/knife-history/why-are-switchblades-illegal
Kuntzman, Gersh, “What is it like to fire an AR-15? It’s horrifying, menacing, and very very loud.” New York Daily News July 14, 2016 https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/firing-ar-15-horrifying-dangerous-loud-article-1.2673201