JonBenet Ramsey and the tip of the iceberg

The Thinker by Rodin

If I have one axe to grind against our modern news media, it is how it can blow one individual story way out of proportion. Last week while traveling on business, I was watching CNN from my hotel room in Augusta, Maine. The story broke that John Mark Karr had been arrested in Thailand as a suspect in the now ten-year-old murder of child model JonBenet Ramsey. I immediately groaned and looked for things to throw at the screen. I knew what was coming. For about a week, CNN along with the other major American media outlets were going to turn into the “Nearly All JonBenet Ramsey News Channel.”

It was not that I am unhappy that maybe this case would finally move toward resolution. Justice delayed is better than no justice at all. The other hard, arguably far more important news was out there, like the fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, the continued carnage in Iraq and increasing violence in Afghanistan. These stories all got short shrift, if they were mentioned at all. All our news media outlets were focused on the murder of one child ten years ago.

Yes, our media decided that the case of one six-year-old girl who had been brutally murdered more than ten years ago was worth at least 75% of its news time. Just in case we had forgotten the gory details (if that were possible, since they have been burned into our national conscience by this point), it was: let’s regurgitate the disgusting details of her murder again and again, every hour, on the hour. Let us recall the secret chamber beneath the Ramsey house. Let us relearn that the poor child had been sexually assaulted and bludgeoned. With this new development, new questions were raised. Was it possible that her parents had been falsely convicted by the media for the crime? Isn’t it a shame that her mother Patsy Ramsey passed away in June of cancer under a cloud of shame and scorn? Prominent psychologists racked up big consulting fees on the airwaves. The hype was incredible; the news content was marginal at best.

Why is JonBenet Ramsey’s life still worthy of such media hype? Because she was a weird little child-model who had something terrible and bizarre happen to her. We were also fascinated because her parents had turned her into a moneymaking machine, seemingly so they could live a more opulent lifestyle. Yet there was a more obvious reason than that: because JonBenet Ramsey’s murder was one mother load for the media. Her strange case reached the demographics that our news media wanted to reach. The more they publicized the case, the more their ratings soared. The more their rating soared, the more they could charge for advertising time. Their pandering was mostly about corporate profits, not the public interest. As long as the news media could sustain interest, other more important news items got short shrift.

Focus, people. Of course, I have sympathy for JonBenet Ramsey and her family. Nevertheless, her death is simply a blip on the radar screens of child deaths, murders, molestations and abuses going on it there all the time. It is just that those other statistics do not seem to bother us. We are mostly inured to the daily child carnage swirling around us.

Approximately 30,000 children die every day from preventable causes like dysentery, malaria, fouled water and hunger. I would die of shock if CNN spent just fifteen minutes a day drawing our attention to these statistics. The closest we came to it recently was the media’s exposure the situation in Darfur. The genocide going on there among the non-Braggara tribes in western Sudan included not just many miserably dying children, but adults too. Then there was the famine, war, racism, terrorism and the half hearted international response to the crisis. Thousands of women were raped, sometimes repeatedly. Over 50,000 people have died in Darfur.

Sad as Darfur is, it is a minor problem compared to what has happened in the Congo. 3.8 million Congolese died in their latest civil war. Who among us Americans actually cares? Most Americans could not even pick Congo out on a world map. More people died in the Congo’s latest civil war than the 3.3 million Cambodians that were massacred by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Yet we find Terri Schiavo or JonBenet Ramsey to be far more interesting, even dead, than millions of remote and desperately poor people in the heart of Africa or Asia. It is almost like 1,000,000 deaths of people we do not care about from ordinary preventable disease and civil war in foreign countries equals one death of some prominent White Caucasian American under unusual circumstances.

Okay, so we tend to have a hard time seeing beyond our own borders. So let us focus on some child abuse statistics here in our own country then. 1500 children die from child abuse in the United States every year. That is over four JonBenet Ramseys a day. Children in this country suffer 140,000 injuries as a direct result of child abuse every year. There are 1.7 million reports of child abuse every year. Add in neglect and the total rises to 2 million reports a year. Among those reports are between 150,000 and 200,000 cases of child sexual abuse a year. One in four women report being sexually abused as children, and one in seven men make a similar claim.

The living adult survivors of child abuse carry forward staggering amounts of psychological damage. Many will end up abusing their own children. With my adult perspective, I now count myself as a survivor of child abuse too. I love my mother, who passed away last year, dearly. I remember and cherish the many wonderful and truly extraordinary things she did for us. However, she also had times when she flipped out. Her emotional teakettle was frequently close to boiling. I suffered from the toxic environment of having an easily angered mother ready to lash out at her own children both emotionally and physically. My Mom was also a firm believer in “spare the rod and spoil the child”. In the 1960s, her behavior though was completely ordinary. If getting abuse at home was insufficient, there was much more to be witnessed in our parochial school. Most of my friends received the same, or worse, from their parents, so my case is hardly noteworthy. It took a couple more decades before society acknowledged that this kind of behavior was unacceptable. It was not tantamount to child abuse; it was child abuse.

So perhaps the JonBenet Ramsey case, because it happened to someone who looked more like a porcelain doll than a human being, gives us a safe way to indirectly confront the abuse we received growing up. Acknowledging our own abusive childhoods may be too painful. However, we can project our feelings and anger into a singular case and talk about it endlessly. JonBenet Ramsey’s tragic death then perhaps has the noble side effect of letting us express those feelings, yet without actually acknowledging our individual traumas.

The real conversation though should not be about JonBenet Ramsey, but about the abuse the vast majority of us suffered as children from people with power over us. Much of it was from parents. Sometimes it came from siblings. Maybe it came from the bully who beat us up at school, or a friend who through wounding words sliced our fragile psyches into cutlets. Child abuse, spousal abuse and plain old abuse goes on all around us. The best neighborhoods are no less immune to it than the roughest neighborhoods. Many of us seem to be unable not to hurt the ones we claim to love the most.

When popular news stories like the JonBenet Ramsey case are invariably raised in the media, outlets like CNN and Fox News would be doing a public service to also expose the scope of the child abuse problem. Perhaps it will bring this shame out of the closets where we can talk about it. Instead of letting these wounds fester, perhaps it is time for us to collectively take steps so they can heal.

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