I am working on a roundup post of media coverage and blogger reaction to the Bill Sparkman lynching story, from all points of the political spectrum. For now, I want to share one particular thought that’s been percolating in my head (ugh, terrible visuals on that!).

First, however, I have to provide a bit of context for my thought.

The controversy over this incident seems to revolve around how one answers the question: Was Bill Sparkman murdered because of anti-government feeling prevalent in the area, and was that anti-government feeling inflamed by an ongoing demonization of government by a number of legislators and media pundits on the right?

The consensus so far seems to be that we cannot answer this question definitively until we know who killed Sparkman, and why. Specifically, we need to find out whether Sparkman was murdered because (a) he was a census worker and thus represented the hated federal government, or because (b) he had the bad luck to stumble on some kind of illegal operation of a kind that is rampant in the area, such as a moonshine or marijuana or crystal meth operation.

If the answer turns out to be (a), then we are faced with two additional questions:

  1. Did the murderer(s) hate the federal government because lots of people hate the government in Appalachia and have done for time out of mind — and inflammatory public statements from noted conservatives had nothing to do with it? Or,
  2. Were the murderers’ anti-government feelings inflamed by, for example, lawmakers like Michelle Bachmann, who encouraged Americans to fear that information from the Census would be abused by the Obama administration to harm them in some way, and declared her intention not to answer any of the Census questions except for the number of people in her family (which is a violation of law)?

If the answer turns out to be (b), then the public vilification of government workers and institutions are presumably irrelevant, because the people doing the illegal activity didn’t care about that; they just didn’t want a federal employee going on about his business after he had seen evidence of criminal activity taking place.

But I believe that this bifurcation is misleading, and ultimately irrelevant.

A couple of points are, I think, pretty well established beyond reasonable question:

  • Sparkman was murdered; i.e., he did not commit suicide.
  • Sparkman’s murderer(s) did not stop at killing Sparkman. After they killed him, rather than disposing of the body or even just leaving the body at the murder site, they set up a theatrical tableau. His naked body was found hanging from a tree with his arms and legs bound with duct tape, duct tape around his neck, his mouth gagged with a rag, the word “fed” written on his body, and his Census identification tag taped prominently to his forehead. There is also speculation that Sparkman may have been killed somewhere else and his body transported to the location where it was found. This speculation is based largely on the fact that, although he was hanging from a tree, his feet were touching the ground.

Now, these details still do not tell us whether Sparkman was killed because he was a Census worker, or whether he was killed because, in the course of doing his Census work, he happened to come upon an illegal activity. But they do make it crystal clear that Sparkman’s killers wanted him to be found like that. Which means — obviously — that this was a message killing. It was a political statement — an act of terrorism.

Which brings me back round to my thought. It’s irrelevant whether Sparkman’s murderer(s) were meth dealers or government-haters. Either way, Bill Sparkman was killed because he was, as the message on his body crudely proclaimed, a “fed.” And whether his killers were fans of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, or not; whether they knew that a member of Congress had declared her proud intention to violate federal law and encouraged others to do so, or not; whether they had picked up on the Republican Party’s many, many anti-government “hate minutes,” or not, does not mitigate the dangerous and irresponsible game that conservative public figures, lawmakers, and prominent bloggers/pundits are playing when they go beyond criticizing specific political figures or particular political viewpoints, and start to attack government itself, along with the very notion of public service. Public discourse is increasingly shaped by the voices of those we elected to make government work for us — all of us — refusing to support the public process they swore to uphold, and actually making it their task to destroy government from within, to tear it down and put it down and have us believe that good government is a joke and government institutions a source of evil and danger, such that violating the law is an act of patriotism. And when they do this, they are responsible — for implicitly condoning and encouraging hatred, for stirring the embers and for fanning the flames and for the “unintended” and “unfortunate” consequences when, as flames do, they burn out of control — for being, in Natalie Cole’s exquisite words, “silver tongues bearing fruit from poison lies.”

Kathy Kattenburg
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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • troosvelt_1858

    Clearly the killers here are scum and deserve to be punished. Also clear is that some political rhetoric goes too far.But as someone who has been physically attacked had his car vandalized by equally wrong radicals on the left, I can assure you this kind of problem is sadly bipartisan.Let us hope we can all get back to the center and sensible debate.

    This of course assumes the attack was political in nature and not, as many suspect, drug related

  • archangel

    still too early to tell. More so, amazing lens on others in USA re jumping the gun to ‘solve’ the mystery without forensic facts. Amazing to watch the speculation. Odd that one left out: homosexual hate crime. Not at all suggesting murder victim was gay. Just that the trussing so on, are not uncommon in hate crimes against certain classes of persons. Just this then: sometimes and often, in our PI work, we see that words written on walls or persons are meant to misdirect. Viz e.g.: manson. Often when words written on homicide victim, murderer did not necessarily find victim replulsive, but rather wrote on them to mock the person while still alive. Often it is thought the stripping of the victim is to depersonalize them, so they can be tortured until seeming unhuman enough to kill. Again, the law officers in this county seem afraid of the woods, and havent gone, it appears, to clean it up once and for all. In PI work, this often points to inquiry at least re who in law enforcement might be benefitting by the county remaining ‘dirty.’I noticed that there is a grand jury case in same county revolving around whether a police officer ought be prosecuted for shooting a man in the back and killing him. The grand jury has been extended and extended, for reasons that are not clear. Again, in PI, you’d look at who is behind the extensions and for what reasons. If it’s to protect the guilty, or to not be fingered as colluding or accessory… then that in itself is considered a crime in most jurisdictions. It appears the police there where the census taker was killed, have plenty problems of their own. Not sure why others in MSM havent reported on this. I found it and other items by researching the local newspaper archives there. thanks K!

  • followed Dr. E’s lead about the local newspaper & found them to be most revealing.after reading the local newspaper looks like it would be near impossible to separate the anti-government sentiment from being systemic no matter what the cause shows to be, and the anti-gov likely goes back to a time before Marconi. . This from Christian Science Monitor. . .” Another scenario is that Sparkman may have stumbled into the path of the mountain drug trade. More than 40 drug dealers have been arrested in the past month in the area where Sparkman was working.Antigovernment sentiments run as far back as to the Whiskey Rebellion in many parts of Appalachia, for instance, and the pot, meth, and moonshine trades often exacerbate tensions between locals and federal law enforcement officials.””You take back in the hills. There’s still a lot of rural area and … two-lane roads that’s never been paved, and people back there don’t cotton to any kind of federal person coming to ask any questions,” says retired US Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent Jack Allen Powell, author of “Revenuers‚ Memories of Yesterday’s Moonshiners.” “It’s more volatile out there than it’s ever been.” i found these links on drug producers and the revenuer culture and it’s history to be of interest. . .http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0910/p02s04-usgn….http://www.csmonitor.com/2001/0927/p3s1-usju.htmlhaving grownup in a very conservative rural community a local culture can have its “own” ways of taking care of issues with an underlying tribal loyalty. . . i remember the whisperings of two heartbreaking murder cases in the county where i grew up. . . one was never prosecuted because of “good ole boy loyalty” and the other one a woman was ganged raped and murdered, a deal was made and men where told if they left the county and not come back the investigation would be dropped. . .in the later case the reason spoken by the lawman was the county did not have the financial resources to prosecute high profile murder cases. . . often people in rural groups talk within the tribe but they know nothing when it comes to those considered “other”. . .i will be surprised if we ever know what happened here. . .and the kids in this tribal village will grow up and many years later they will know there are many Americas and some of them are hidden. . . years later i asked a Public Defender about justice in rural areas and he said lack of financial resources continues to be an issue for justice in rural America.

    Clay county graduation rate. 49%
    Clay County per capita income $15,000.
    a little irony on Clay County Kentucky. . .it is a Dry County. . .

  • Father_Time

    The murderers didn’t write anything but “FED” on the man’s body, so I’d say the Federal Government was the reason for his murder. Unless of course the murder was made to just look like a treasonous hate crime against the Federal Government.Randy Weaver, David Koresh, Tim McViegh & Terry Nichols, G.Gordon Liddy, to name a few, were/are, all anti-Federal Government traitors that acted upon their beliefs with violence or as advocates of violence against employees of the Federal Government.This is a real phenomenon that is perpetuated by elected members of the republican party and their media cohorts. It has gone way beyond snide comments against those whom simply do not agree with their reactionary politics. Violence is their obvious threat, therefore they are terrorists. Disgustingly, they are terrorists against their own neighbors, men, women, or, children with threats of death.I believe this must end. Special Laws need to be made that protects Federal Employees as well as the general population from these traitors. However more must be done. It may be time to use the military to root out these areas where domestic terrorists are dwelling and proliferating. Dig up their weapons caches, root out their secret meeting places and if they resist, kill them. From Sea, to shinning Sea.

  • JeffersonDavis

    Good article, Kat.

    I actually agree with you. Whoda thunk?

    The act was definitely an act of terrorism, no matter the motive. The perps should be hunted down and killed accordingly.

    Conversely, Father_Time wants to instutute a law to protect Federal Employees. I thought that killing a federal employee was already illegal. Perhaps I was wrong. But it appears that his real aim is to have yet another reason to go out and gather up all the weapons. However, if there is a terrorist group of Americans out there wanting to take down the government through violence, I agree that they should be chased and killed. Just don’t take the actions of treasonous jackasses as an excuse to satisfy your liberal hatred of LAW ABIDING Americans who own weapons.

    The 2nd Amendment is in place to keep the government honest, not to allow hunting. Remember that.

    • Father_Time

      Democrats own weapons also. We are the Law Abiding people.

      The second amendment allows the right to bear arms as a well regulated militia. Try actually reading the second amendment and NEVER tell me to remember something treasonous again!

      • JeffersonDavis

        I, too, am a Democrat, my American brother.

        As far as a well regulated militia goes, why don’t YOU read the second amendment:

        “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the PEOPLE to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

        Militia does not mean ARMY. Militia means separate armed groups autonomous from federal rule. If I were to get a group of militia together, the government would vilify me and take my group down. A militia, by definition, is a loosely organized group of armed individuals, who are called together when needed. That means individuals armed for war (not with deer rifles) and kept in inactive status until called to duty.

        Ask yourself WHY the 2nd Amendment was added.
        Was it to provide for an Army?
        Nope. That’s provided for elsewhere.
        Was it placed in the Constitution because the British took away that right in order to force government control?

        • Father_Time

          This is 2009 not 1776. The National Guard is our well regulated militia. The word “people” is in that context simply because the “people” individually have no hope in hell for providing for the security of any state. What you suggest is laughable and, treasonous. You cannot bear arms in violence against the United States Government, whether or not you “think” it honest.

          • JeffersonDavis

            The National Guard? You’re partially correct.

            The militia is supposed to be made up of armed citizens, not a separate permanent Army.
            The word people is in THAT context. The people are armed, and called into active service when needed.

            And I will not bear arms against the United States government. It’s not “honest”. The only exception, is when that government becomes a tyrrany – something you’re not worried about but could happen given the right circumstances. The Constitution specifically warns of tyranny and was created to keep it from happening here.

            And stop making me out to be some David Karesh-type. Of course, that’s the only way liberals have to force their opinions on others – demonize and conquer.

    • kathykattenburg

      Thanks, JD — although I don’t agree that the perpetrators should be “hunted down and killed.” Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what you mean, but I don’t believe in vigilante “justice.”

      • JeffersonDavis


        I was talking about the GOVERNMENT hunting them down and killing them – not me.
        (Although I’m willing).

  • Leonidas

    The act was definitely an act of terrorism, no matter the motive.

    Without a doubt.

  • $199537

    Well JeffDavis you are being more charitable than I am. I think Kathy’s post goes a bit too far. After acknowledging that most people would counsel waiting until more information is available, that viewpoint is quickly cast aside and the rest is mainly searching for justification to scold talk radio and conservatism in general, culminating in the preachy last paragraph.This reflects a phenomenon that is widespread among both liberals and conservatives – when something bad happens it’s not enough to blame it on the perpetrators, blame must also be given to some facet of society. In this case the facet conveniently turns out to be the party the author didn’t care for in the first place.One other comment from the article bugged me “they go beyond criticizing specific political figures or particular political viewpoints, and start to attack government itself”. I think many conservative/libertarian types (including myself) believe the government should never be completely trusted. My God, the GWB years were an illustration of that. Violence against government workers should never be condoned, but there should continual criticism and scrutiny of the government as a whole.Someone might respond that you should criticize the government but “not go too far”. How do you gauge what is too far in criticizing the government? No one has suggested killing government workers, they’ve just made criticisms of specific policies and programs. No one should criticize the census? That’s unreasonable.

    • LaLee

      People can and should criticize when the Govt is wrong but that does not mean people can make up lies like insinuating that census is part of sinister plot to round up conservatives like the what happened to Japanese Americans during WW2.

    • kathykattenburg

      I think many conservative/libertarian types (including myself) believe the government should never be completely trusted. My God, the GWB years were an illustration of that.Actually, the GWB years were an illustration of what happens when rabidly pro-business anti-government ideologues dominate in government. Former Pres. Bush presided over the largest, most wide-ranging privatization of government ever seen in this country. Reagan did a lot in that area, too, but GWB took it to new heights.The transformation of the Department of Defense and our military into a haven for private defense contractors and subcontractors is one example. Another is the fact that almost all of GWB’s high-level government appointments were people who opposed the mission of the agencies they were hired to run. Bush appointed Eric Keroack, a rabid opponent of abortion and contraception, to be in charge of family planning at the Dept. of Health and Human Services. When Keroack was forced to resign because of controversy over that, and also over licensing issues, Bush replaced him with Susan Orr, who also opposed legal abortion, who called contraception part of the “culture of death,” and who succeeded in preventing contraceptives from being covered in federal employees’ insurance coverage. Bush appointed John Bolton, who *hates* the United Nations and wants to see it dismantled, to the post of U.S. ambassador to the U.N.! Going back to Reagan, James Watt, whom Reagan appointed to head the Department of the Interior — the Department of the Interior! — consistently opposed legislative measures to protect the environment, wanted to open up national parks to corporate interests, and had to resign because of corruption charges. Gale Norton, whom GWB appointed to head the same agency, resigned in disgrace after allegations of trying to sell oil shale exploration rights on public lands. She also was a strong advocate of opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.These are just a few examples of a consistent pattern in Republican administrations, most notably Reagan’s and Bush 43’s. And when the government is filled with anti-government types who systematically dismantle and sabotage government agencies, government programs, and government functions in favor of private business interests, that’s not good government or government in the public interest. It’s business government basically. And now, people like Michele Bachmann play a cynical game of exploiting the very mistrust of government that her party encouraged by transforming government into a playground for private industry, to further encourage the public to distrust government. Meanwhile, the “government” that people are distrusting is more an appendage of the free market than the institution in society that is supposed to secure the rights of the people who elected it, who pay for it, and to whom it should be accountable.

      • $199537

        Kathy you have to extend the same freedom of speech and freedom to criticize the government that you enjoy to those people you disagree with. As far as I know no politicians or commentators pushed for violence against census takers, they stated their opinions, misguided or not. There also isn’t any evidence Sparkman was killed due to talk radio, Michelle Bachman, conservatives or any other outside influences.

        Imagine someone reads your posts and decides to assassinate Bachmann. Do you now bear a share of responsibility? Of course not. You haven’t advocated violence any more than she has. And for the record I think Bachmann is a fruitcake, but being a fruitcake doesn’t make her responsible for someone else’s crimes.

        • kathykattenburg

          DaGoat, this is SO not about freedom of speech. Of course Michelle Bachmann has the right to tell Americans that the census is a sinister, dangerous thing and that Obama is going to use the results to do terrible things to people. Did I suggest she should be arrested or muzzled? Nevertheless, her particular speech on this subject (and many others) is factually inaccurate and deeply irresponsible, especially given her position as an elected representative of the government that is accountable to the people and which, for that very reason, relies on the census as one of many tools to implement sound and beneficial government policies. It’s appalling that a member of Congress would encourage people to fear the Census and refuse to fill out the forms, thereby violating the law.This is not about “disagreeing” or having the right to speak freely. This is about contributing to a very real atmosphere that is growing stronger and stronger of contempt for government, fear of government (beyond healthy skepticism), and opposition to the very concept of government.If lawmakers like Michele Bachmann have the constitutional right to say hateful and untrue things about the government that alone can uphold that constitutional right, she (and they) also have some responsibility for the effect their words have. These are people who reach millions of Americans in a single speech. They are enormously influential. I don’t see and can’t fathom how you can deny that words are consequential. How would it be possible for lawmakers, major media pundits, business leaders, etc., etc., and other influential public figures to continually degrade and put down and demonize government and *not* have that affect the political and social atmosphere? Things do not happen in a vacuum.Finally, your comparison between my post and Bachmann’s remarks is specious. Aside from the silliness of comparing one post of mine to years and years of Bachmann — a leading member of Congress — saying and doing and advocating truly crazy, irresponsible things to millions of people, many of whom hang on her every word, there is no legitimate parallism between criticizing *factual* actions by public officials and making unsupported, unhinged accusations just because you have the platform to do it and you want to. Now if I were to go out and criss-cross the country and make a career out of saying publicly that Michele Bachmann is a dangerous lunatic who is out to incite violence against Democrats and who wants to burn down all the government buildings in Washington and that people should go to her house to demand answers and even take up arms against her, THEN you might have a point in equating my criticism of her to her warnings about the evil Census and how Barack Obama wants to put all of our children in reeducation labor camps.

  • LaLee hits the essential point I was going to make — there is a difference between criticism of the government, and even general distrust of the government, and encouraging people to hate the government. DaGoat asks “how do you gauge what is too far in criticizing the government?” If you’re encouraging people to commit acts of violence, that’s too far.

    Sure, the census isn’t above criticism — but it’s actually called for *in the Constitution.* Even the very first census in 1790 called for (slightly) more information than what Bachman said she would give. There is a point at which “distrust of the government” slips into outright paranoia. You hear the phrase “healthy skepticism” an awful lot, but we don’t always think about what that means: an *unhealthy* skepticism is just as dangerous as gullibility. Blindly accepting everything the government says — or that a corporation says, or an NGO says, or really any organization with collective power says — is a bad idea. Blindly rejecting everything the government (or other power) says is *also* a bad idea.

    In any event, we are not talking about mere criticism at this point, are we? It’s worth asking how inflammatory we really want our political speech to be, and if we feel a line is being crossed, what can and should be done about it. I don’t have any immediate answers–I’m not comfortable with a lot of what is said on talk radio, but I’m certainly no more comfortable with legally-enforced restrictions on political speech. Yet when that speech is advocating illegal actions, is there a point when it becomes more than a mere expression of dissatisfaction? “Incitement to riot” is, after all, considered a crime.

  • Leonidas

    Mr. L. That’s not a nit pick. We always appreciate help in spelling et al, for often enough the elves change the keyboard letters around at night while we’re sleeping (hope that made you smile).

    In my case I think the elves change my fingers instead, when I first wake up it isn’t only the keyboard that poses difficulty. =D

  • shannonlee

    I think it is a serious stretch to try to implicate conservative politicians and pundits as any sort of driving force in the way he was murdered. As another commenter has already stated, that area has had a hatred of the federal government for over a century. As someone that has spent plenty of time in Ozark mountain country, I can say from experience that many of these types are taught to hate the government from birth.

  • teledyn

    I can’t believe what I am reading here. c’mon people, who really gives a flying …what some psychopathic sadists SAY is their reasoning, they are still psychopaths. If they wrote CornFlakes on the body and covered the corpse in white sugar would it have made ANY difference?? Ditto with other acts of so-called ‘Terrorism’ — forget the political angle, that’s just a ruse to sell air-time; Zoroaster proved 3000 years ago that if you don’t like a government, you WRITE about it, you don’t go dismembering people and leaving the bloody remnants for the mothers to find on the 10 o’clock news.These people are psychotic, there is no further ‘politics’ to the question. What do we do with any other psychotic?

  • kathykattenburg

    Oh, and btw, it’s not *just* Bachmann. I wrote an entire long comment in which Bachmann was just one example I gave of how conservatives, Republicans, and other free market extremists are trying to tear down, discredit, and dismantle government. You conveniently focused just on what I said about Bachmann, thus making it appear that I was pinning the entire responsibility for violence against government targets on her.

    Furthermore, and as a matter of fact, Bachmann *has,* indeed, advocated violence. She urged supporters to take up arms, to be blood brothers in revolution, to say enough is enough and do something to stop the evil government people who are trying to subjugate Americans.

  • archangel

    Hi there Jefferson Davis: here at Tmv, we have many veterans, and also many war veterans who are a different stripe altogether so we’re used to their ways of thinking which are often rich with insights. They often have strong feelings about various… as do others who read and leave comments at TMV

    but we dont, under TMV rules allow even tongue in cheek calls for others to be murdered and/or as you added, that you’d do it yourself. We keep the TMV rules for commenters in place, and aim the discussion to the topic of the article, that leaves broad room to discuss /debate. Thanks.dr.e

    “I was talking about the GOVERNMENT hunting them down and killing them – not me.
    (Although I’m willing).” JeffersonDavis