This is a very sad post.
And despite some of the research areas in which I work, I am not a big fan of sadness. I don’t like it at all.
Students and colleagues sometimes laugh when I tell them I love joy and music and gut-splitting laughter. Because there isn’t too much of that in studies of media and violence and catastrophe. I mean, it is only rational for someone to open our college catalogue, see a grad seminar entitled Disease and Disaster in Media and Culture — and wonder if the instructor is rowing with all oars in the water. (Actually, all his oars aren’t always in the water, but that’s another story).
I can only say that my fascination and curiosity about violence was born of an intense curiosity about the effects of crime and violence on society and social institutions, everything from families to nations. I won’t bore you again with childhood experience that planted this seed.
The sad story I want to share is about a murder that turned out not to be a murder.
On September 13, 2009, a US Census Bureau employee named Bill Sparkman was found hanged in an isolated location in rural Kentucky with the word “Fed” scrawled on his chest. This was at a time when anti-federal rage was on fire across the country in the form of health reform town meetings being mobbed by people who find any government involvement ion health care to be a mortal sin. (These , by the way, are overwhelmingly people WITH health insurance.)
The immediate assumption was that Bill Sparkman had been murdered.
It is easy to see why the media jumped on the murder narrative. All of us need to come up with some story that makes something horrible even slightly comprehensible. The murder of a “Fed” was as plausible as any other theory, and the fact that it took place in Kentucky summoned distant memories of the feds who came looking for illegal moonshine during prohibition. The story received enormous coverage.
The problem is that Bill Sparkman was not murdered. The official report just released details an elaborate suicide plan in which Mr. Sparkman would fake his own murder so his son could collect his life insurance.
This is, of course, achingly sad for both Mr. Sparkman and his family. But I raise the story in Media and Mayhem to make an important point. There are times when everything about an incident points to one explanation. But this is precisely the point when a skilled journalist or media consumer or plain old citizen will ask what at the time seems like a dumb question: Yes, it looks like a murder, or yes it looks like a stranger abduction, but what is every other even slightly plausible explanations that has to be ruled out? Why might this NOT be what it looks like?
Supposed stranger abductions, for example, are only very rarely actual stranger abductions.
Very few people did that in this case. And it is a lesson to be learned and mulled over again and again. The obvious and the plausible are often wrong. Sometimes that is because someone wanted to create a false impression to hide their culpability and sometimes no one is at fault. The guiltiest “looking” person can be innocent. And the most innocent looking person can be guilty. The point is that society gets in deep trouble when it jumps to conclusions based on looks and other stereotypes. The single most horrifying story I have ever seen of a “guilty” man who turned out to be completely innocent is detailed in the riveting HBO documentary The Trials of Darryl Hunt.
The trick of responsible citizenship, the kind of citizenship in which we place a high premium on truth, is to never accept the obvious narrative immediately and to always await the inevitably complex and nuanced details that are really what make us human.
Finally, responsible citizenship requires our compassion. Oh, we can be angry at a man whose deception scared a lot of good people . But we also might at least consider feeling compassion, even grief, for a human being in such personal pain that this kind of scheme seemed the only way out.