In the past week, there have been three deaths reported here on Patch and elsewhere that have struck a chord with readers. Actually, several chords have been struck and the cacophony has almost deafened the ears with its dischordant clanging.
The first case is the horrific strangulation murders of two young men by four other young adults. The circumstances of the crime were so heinous, Joliet Police Chief Mike Trafton was quoted as saying, "I think you need to know this is one of the most brutal, heinous, really upsetting things that (I've seen) in 27 years of law enforcement," and, "It is the worst thing I've come across in my career.”
The second case began as a mystery. An overturned car was found in a creek, a lone male victim still inside. The circumstances that led to this victim being in the upside-down vehicle in the water, some distance from the roadway, are still largely unknown. Even the victim’s identity was initially withheld, pending notification of the family.
Then, as soon as the man’s name was released, the fact that he was a sex offender, convicted of child pornography with a victim listed as under the age of 1, was released by a commenter on one of the many online stories.
How these two cases are connected is not in the facts, victims or offenders, but in the community response.
In the first case, amidst several articles detailing who the suspects were, there were outcries against glorifying the criminals while ignoring the victims. Giving people attention after they have committed unspeakable crimes, it was said, rewards that type of behavior and motivates others of a similar bend of mind to go out and do something even more horrific so they too can see their names in the headlines.
The names of the suspects had been released and no further mention of them should be made; stories should be run about the lives of the victims and their families, of the immeasurable loss caused by this incomprehensible crime.
These were the voices of a few, while the many read and continued to comment on the identities, lives, associations and life choices of the suspects. Being as young as they are, social media has been a font of information. The role of social media in the development of their characters and their ability to express themselves in the ways they chose has also come under scrutiny and speculation. Still, even those expressing the most ardent positions railing against these individuals take time to consider the victims.
Not all of that consideration, however, can be qualified as the respectful, dignified thoughts and care for them and their families others have demanded. In fact, there have been very few, too few posts, comments or statements that have not in some way laid at least some of the responsibility for their own deaths at the feet of the victims.
After all, they knew these people, went to that house willingly and may have even been involved in the use of illegal substances at least on that, their final night.
In the second case, as soon as it was posted that the victim had been convicted of a crime that is usually described as heinous, unconscionable and unforgivable, calls for respect for the dead and for his family were posted by those who claim to have known him, loved him and grieve for him. Many came forward and said they knew the victim to be a good man, a kind and loving person with many friends.
Don’t believe everything you read, they said, and don’t assume just because someone is convicted of a terrible-sounding crime means you know the circumstances or even the actual guilt of the person labeled a "sexual predator" by the Illinois Department of Corrections.
There are volumes written by psychologists, sociologists, criminologists, anthropologists and many other learned types about this, but much of it can be summed up by the catch-all term, Human Nature.
It is nothing more than human nature to want to understand who would strangle two people and then “continue the party atmosphere” in the words of Chief Trafton. People want to understand and find clues or warning signs in the lives of these people as a way to prevent something like this from ever happening again.
As horrific and terrifying as this case is, the only thing more frightening is the thought that it can simply happen to anyone, without some sort of warning. Because if that is true, if there is even a measure of truth in that thought, we are all potential victims. To the human mind and to our society, there is nothing more frightening than the idea that no one is safe.
This need for safety, for some assurance that life will continue, that the unthinkable won’t happen is evident all around us. So is the fact that we understand there are no guarantees.
No one believes they are going to die prematurely and leave their families without their continued financial support, yet we buy life insurance. No one believes the product they just bought, brand new off the shelf, will break down the moment we get it home, yet we not only buy product warranties we often choose a product on the length of its warranty.
When we hear about a crime, about people that should still be here and are not because of the actions of another, we frantically pull out our mental warranties, our emotional insurance policies and scour them looking for the clause that says we are covered and protected, that this thing cannot ever happen to us or our loved ones. The subsection and paragraph we are seeking is the one that explains who the suspect is, that tells us how we can recognize that person and mitigate our chances of exposure to or contact with them so we don’t void our own contracts with life.
Then we come across a story that inhabits anyone’s nightmare. To die alone, in the dark, in a ditch and going undiscovered long enough for ice to form around the scene. We don’t know what happened, can’t imagine the circumstances and are not reassured when the authorities say there doesn’t seem to be foul play involved.
Of course, it is assumed the victim was culpable in his own death in some way. He must have been drinking or on drugs, otherwise how do we explain ending up that far from the roadway, upside down in a creek? We check our mental warranties and psychological insurance policies and tell ourselves, “Yep, I’m covered. I don’t drink and drive, I don’t do drugs. This one can never happen to me.”
Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the authorities to release exactly what influence the driver was operating under while we push that other niggling feeling away.
That feeling is just a slight worry that there may be circumstances in this case for which we are not covered, a factor that may not have been in the driver’s control. What if the guy had some kind of seizure, if he was ill or medicated and had some weird reaction?
Since that is the least likely situation, we tell ourselves, we really have very little if nothing to worry about. If it turns out to be something like that, we convince ourselves that it wouldn’t apply to us anyway because we don’t suffer from that disease, take that medication or even have a family history that predisposes us to whatever the condition was that turns out to be the cause of this tragedy.
Then, we find out who the guy was on and give out a sigh of relief. Our mental warranties and emotional insurance policies are folded up and put away, slammed into the file cabinet of our psyche. The victim was so completely different from us, the circumstances of his life so divorced from our own reality we can completely dismiss every niggling doubt, every scrap of worry and every bit of pity from our minds.
The victim was a “Bad Person.” He was a convicted child pornographer, a "Sex Offender,” a “Sexual Predator.” Now we can rest easy because he was not a fellow traveler through this crazy, unpredictable, unsafe world, or so we tell ourselves, because he did something that may have well physically placed him on a different plane of existence, he is so far below us in the natural order of things.
Yes, he was a human being, but that is the only commonality we share; we have more in common with a person living a Stone Age existence in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Phew, thank God and All The Powers That Be, thank the underwriters of the policies of our minds, we are safe from this calamity because we are nothing like that person, have nothing in common with someone who no longer deserves even being referred to as a victim. A victim is an innocent, and now we all know this guy didn’t qualify for that label because he had other labels; labels he attached to himself by his own actions.
We now can return our attention to the first case, continue to figure out how those two young men who still qualify for our empathy came to be where they were when they were. Naturally, the dissection of the lives and minds of the suspects must run its course first. But sooner or later, we will find the one thing in the lives of these victims that makes them not just sufficiently different from us, but so completely separate and apart that there is no chance our emotional warranties and psychological insurance policies could be paid out in a similar way.