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ALMOST AS CHILLING AS KIDDIE PORN IS THE QUESTION: WHO'S THE MARKET?

The only thing more shocking than child pornography itself is the size of the market for it.

But the market is there. That's why it's fortunate that a Western New York task force tracking child porn is there, too.

The nearly 200,000 images of children and teen-agers in pornographic acts and poses collected by local investigators is perhaps the largest such compilation in the world. It puts this region at the forefront in fighting a crime that too often gets ignored.

One reason it gets ignored is because it is often hidden. It takes place mostly in private settings where children are sexually exploited in front of a camera but out of the public's view.

And it takes place in private Internet chat rooms, where arrangements are made to peddle that privately produced smut.

But that doesn't mean kiddie porn has no public impact. Who would want their children in schools, scout troops or counseling centers staffed and run by people who, in their spare time, deal in "baby rape" pictures so graphic that they turn the stomachs of hardened investigators?

Who would want their children left in the hands of men whose interests run toward pictures of 3- and 4-year-old boys sodomizing adults, or young girls being used in every conceivable way -- and ways normal people could never conceive of?

The national task force, organized by Attorney General Dennis Vacco, has arrested school administrators and board members, youth counselors and a director of a children's foundation. These are some of the people dealing in Internet kiddie porn so vile that it caused a Buffalo dealer in "adult entertainment" to contact authorities in an effort to stop it.

This area likes to think of itself as conservative and steeped in family values. But the market for child porn apparently knows no philosophical or geographic boundaries, as Internet transmissions that started here have led to arrests all over the country.

The purveyors are so well connected across state lines and international borders that they include a Swiss couple lured here last month and arrested at a local hotel. They had more than 100,000 child-porn pictures they hoped to cash in on by selling them to Western New Yorkers.

Some of those arrested as a result of these investigations have prior convictions for rape or child molestation. But even purveyors who have never themselves assaulted a child are guilty of facilitating the vile exploitation of children by contributing to the market for such pictures.

The task force is a necessary tool to curb this burgeoning market and try to bring the law to bear. But as the cops try to protect children, the bigger question is why so many adults want to exploit them and give no thought to the pain and crippling lifelong damage -- even, in some cases, death -- that their "entertainment" inflicts.

Anyone who deals in such pictures -- and the friends and relatives who pretend not to notice -- should have as hard a time sleeping at night as the cops whose stomachs are turned by some of the pictures they find.

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