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Posted by on Sep 27, 2009 in Politics, Society | 26 comments

Further Thoughts on Kentucky Lynching

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.”