Some alarming questions arise from the case of a cantor at a Halifax synagogue who fled to the States in disgrace this January after being charged and fined $2,000 for downloading child pornography from the Internet. No suggestion was made that the cantor’s involvement with porn went beyond the fantasy stage.

Undoubtedly, part of the buzz which made this sad tale so newsworthy was its religious component. A man of God is brought low by the sins of the flesh . . . yet another patriarchal hypocrite falls into the devil’s snare . . . you get the idea. In most of the media, the only time religion is referred to, is when a case like this comes along.

The media caricature of the two-faced zealot is so much easier to exploit than a more honest and complex portrait which acknowledges that most people don’t turn to religion because they think themselves morally pure and better than the rest of us. Rather, they know how weak and easily tempted they are, and wish to shore up their commitment in the life-long struggle to behave as decently and honourably as they can.

Tipped off by some busybody or angry relative, our police are prepared to push their way into private homes and lay charges for possessing such easily procured materials. How far might such surveillance go? How many of us in idle moments when our guard is down and we’re feeling a little goofy or ticked off, have suggested (or heard friends suggest) blowing up City Hall? Arranging for a pizza van to run over our boss? Hanging the vice-principal from the basketball hoop in the gymnasium?

Are we really ready to hold people accountable for the products (however vile, reprehensive or absurd) of their private fantasies? And if you only have to flick a switch and click on a mouse in the privacy of your own home, are we ready to hold people accountable for the stimulants (however vile, reprehensible or absurd) of their fantasies?

For many people pornography is an addiction — like alcohol or gambling. How would we feel upon learning that a reformed alcoholic was being perpetually tempted by a sort of ‘hot line’ to Joe’s Bar which had been permanently installed in his house? He had only to pick up the receiver, any time of the night or day, and within seconds, a courier from Joe’s would be over with an assortment of alcoholic beverages? Who would we regard as the real criminal here? The recovering addict who succumbed to temptation for a moment? Or the provider of such a powerfully destructive service?

The Internet also raises some tricky new concerns for the pro-life movement. Shortly after Australia’s Northern Territory adopted the most permissive euthanasia law in the world, an Australian doctor developed a computer software program called ‘Deliverance.’ When the subject is hooked up to an intravenous drip line, three questions must be answered by the appropriate ‘mouse clicks’ to ensure that he is aware of what he is doing. The last question is, ‘If you press YES, you will cause a lethal injection to be given within 30 seconds and you will die. Do you wish to proceed? Yes/No.”

Morbidly, one wonders how Australia’s Madison Avenue will promote this final program: “Good news for depressed computer geeks! Isn’t it time to go ‘off-line’ for keeps? There’s no more need for expensive computer upgrades. EVER, when you purchase the last software program that you’ll ever need. Stand by to crash!”

At least with Dr. Jack Kevorkian, one has to book his services, wait for him to turn up in his “Hell-On-Wheels” van, and hook up the plastic tubing and the cannisters of gas. There are a number of step to be gone through, any one of which might cause the victim-in-waiting to think better of taking such nihilistic action. Obviously, one little click on the mouse is a whole lot easier to carry through. And deep down, who really believes that anything involving home computers and cyberspace will carry real consequences anyway? Be they moral, legal or lethal?

I’m reminded of the infamous psychology experiments undertaken by Stanley Milgram in New York City in the 1960s. Designed to show how readily people will obey authority in carrying out the most despicable acts, I also believe that the sophisticated looking machinery used in those experiments acted as another moral partition; further isolating the subjects from the impact of their actions.

In those filmed encounters, an unwitting subject was told to turn the dial on an electronic transmitter which would send an electric shock into the system of a slow learner whenever he answered test questions incorrectly. There was, in fact, no electric shock being given — which was a very good thing — because in the vast majority of cases, despite screams and protests from the zapped slow learner, the subject was persuaded by authority figures in lab coats that he was not responsible for any injury, and so continued to administer shocks of ever-increasing voltage.

The horror of those 30-year-old experiments was the realization that a man would willingly turn the dial on a mysterious electronic box even when he thought it might kill someone. The horror of our present situation is that those boxes now really are equipped to download depravity and death and we’re installing them in all of our homes. Morally and physically, it has never been easier or more chillingly convenient to destroy ourselves.