Thursday, September 24, 2009

Death By Politics, Fear By Media

Bill Sparkman, 51, was found hanging from a tree in rural Kentucky on September 12.  As far as anyone knows, he was working his second job as an interviewer for the Census Bureau.  Authorities are not 100% sure whether it was a suicide or a homicide.  This kind of thing happens with some frequency, and so it's not surprising that it did not make national news at the time.  The Associate Press didn't pick up the story until yesterday, when it reported that Sparkman had the letters "FED" written on his body when it was found, raising suspicions that he was killed because of his job with the Census Bureau. 

Occam's razor tells us that the simplest explanation is the most likely one.  Even if we presume that Mr. Sparkman was murdered, the most likely scenario is that he happened upon someone who didn't want to be happened upon.  The area where he died has a lot of methamphetamine activity, and it's not hard to imagine him knocking on the door of a meth lab and/or a house inhabited by someone high on meth, who killed him and wrote "FED" as a way of being mocking.  That scenario is horrible, but, frankly, it isn't why this has made the national news.

What people are really interested in and worried about is the possibility that Sparkman was murdered not for happening upon the wrong people, but for doing his job.  It could be that someone murdered him because they didn't think the government should be asking questions, or because they just didn't like the government.  Some on the political far-right have recently expressed great distrust of the 2010 census.  Maybe Sparkman was murdered by someone who thought this way.

This is a sensationalistic possibility, and reporters can usually dig up someone who makes the sensational seem very real.  The AP found a waitress near where Sparkman was killed, who said,
Sometimes I think the government should stick their nose out of people's business and stick their nose in their business at the same time. They care too much about the wrong things.
And of course the article makes it seem like this was her answer to what she thought about the murder.  More likely, it was her answer to why someone would not like the census.

The notion that someone is killing governent workers because they work for the government is fundamentally frightening to a lot of people.  If, in general, you think that the United States government is, if not a force for good, at least a necessary evil, the targeting of government workers in an attempt to protest their work makes you worried for the safety of the country, and for your own safety by extension.

But the fact remains that it is far more likely that Sparkman was killed because of where he was, not who he was.  And even if he was killed for working for the census, it is more likely to be the work of a single fanatic than representative of any organized movement.  But that's boring, and boring doesn't get the attention of the press.  Let's hope, however, that boring wins out in the end.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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