Submitted for publication on 8/23/2006. Unpublished.———————————————————————————Conventional Wisdom or Mob Stupidity?
The news of an arrest in the Jon Benet Ramsey murder investigation came as a surprise to America on August 18, 2006. A case that shocked a nation nearly ten years before, and filled newspapers, magazines and tabloids for years before becoming cold began to heat up in countless cell phone calls, text messages, emails and water cooler conversations.
The alleged killer wasn’t a member Jon Benet’s own family afterall, contrary to conventional wisdom; it was a stranger, John Mark Karr.
This isn’t the first time conventional wisdom has proven wrong. On July 27, 1996 at the Summer Olympics held in Atlanta Georgia, security guard Richard Jewell noticed an unattended green knapsack in Centennial Park during late-night Olympic festivities. He immediately alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and helped clear the area around the knapsack before it exploded – killing a woman and contributing to a cameraman’s fatal heart attack.
At first Jewell was praised as a hero, but within days fell under suspicion after the Atlanta News Journal reported that the FBI considered him a suspect. Soon, in the absence of others Jewell became the prime suspect in the bombing.
He was pilloried in the media. Comedian Jay Leno referred to him as the ‘Una-doofus.’ Two people wounded in the bombing sued him, and the FBI searched his mother’s home, where he lived. The FBI never found any evidence linking him to the crime, and Jewell was eventually exonerated by Attorney General Janet Reno, who apologized for the leak to the press that had lead to his public humiliation.
Although Richard Jewell fought hard to clear his name, his was the only name publicly associated to the crime – until Eric Rudolph was arrested in 2003 and later confessed to the bombing. For seven years Jewell was forced to defend his name, as the public and the media sought to link him to a crime he never committed.
In both cases circumstances fed suspicions. People felt uncomfortable with the glamour photographs taken of Jean Benet as a beauty queen, which many felt objectified a little girl inappropriately. Richard Jewell was a security guard who lived with his mother at the age of 33. Being a security guard isn’t the most highly regarded job in our society, and the fact that Jewell was living with his mother instead of being on his own at his age made him appear odd.
These suspicions arise from a conflict between reality and our sense of propriety. Parents are usually the harshest critics of other parents, and enough children return to live with their parents to spawn a term, ‘boomerang generation’, and a movie, ‘Failure to Launch.’ Yet when no immediate suspects appeared in both cases, the public used these oddities to create suspects from those closest at hand: The Benet family and Richard Jewell.
Even the most ordinary person leading a normal, uneventful life can appear guilty of the most heinous crime under the lens of suspicion generated by extraordinary circumstances. At such a time two human tendencies emerge: the need to uncover answers and the tendency to see patterns in data where none exist.
The murder of a child is a particularly heinous act – one that strikes an emotional chord in people that other crimes do not. Such an act demands immediate answers and the discovery of the killer. It generates an emotional response that clashes with the rule of law, and the slow and systematic accumulation of evidence by the homicide investigators.
This emotional impetus drives us to see patterns in the limited evidence we are privy too, which has usually been filtered through biased sources in the media and in the ‘conventional wisdom’ we pick up through our own social networks of family, friends and co-workers. As the facts become outweighed by the conjectures and fabrications found in ‘conventional wisdom’ the crime itself becomes a kind of ink blot, or Rorschach Test, where we spin our own explanation for the crime based upon opinions, faulty data and outright fabrications until we see what we expect to see – and lose sight of the truth.
This is bad news for those like the Ramsey family and Richard Jewell who become mired in our fabrications like flies trapped in amber. Richard Jewell refused to accept his fate and eventually saw himself publicly vindicated; Patsy Ramsey was not so fortunate, dying from ovarian cancer before seeing herself proven innocent in the eyes of the public.
Patsy’s fate is not unusual for victims of ‘conventional wisdom’. Is it possible that the term is just a euphemism for the chants of the lynch mob? After all, in the absence of a conviction in the criminal courts weren’t Patsy Ramsey and Richard Jewell convicted in the court of public opinion and hung? Isn’t this the same type of ‘conviction’ that resulted in innocent people being lynched or accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake in bygone eras? Perhaps these eras aren’t so ‘bygone’ after all, just that the noose is now made from tabloids and newspaper, and the fires from gossip TV shows and talk radio.
Can talk be as deadly as a noose or a pyre? Ask the Ramsey family, Richard Jewell – or perhaps even OJ Simpson.