Originally posted October 25, 2012.
Some pretty intense sentiments have appeared in the comments on our coverage of the disappearance and murder of Autumn Pasquale on Patch.
Without calling out individual commenters, I've seen posts advocating for an (explicitly) savage assault of the two juveniles charged with the crime; remarks saying that anyone who caught up with them would be well-served to kill them outright and cover it up; even some that suggested that Pasquale's killers should be made to suffer in a public forum.
It was enough to make me want to ask Patch readers as an audience—where are we with this?
Without dismissing the severity of the tragedy that has unfolded this week in the small town of Clayton, we’ve pretty much seen some of the worst in ourselves as it’s played out.
Before Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton held a press conference Tuesday to announce that arrests had been made in the case, we already had our outrage prepared.
(How ready were we? One media outlet led with a headline announcing that the suspects had "murdered" Pasquale—before remembering that journalists don’t have the power to convict people and attributing the remark to Dalton.)
At that press conference, Dalton did not provide the names of the 15- and 17-year-old who were charged in the case.
But the Internet did.
This is a real problem for new media. In the world where everyone has an online presence and is therefore a real-time source of information, what is the value of a thing like legal precedent? Or professional ethics?
When you’re being deafened by a crowd-sourced outing, what’s the sense of keeping quiet?
If that were the biggest problem I see in this case, I would take it. But the level of anger, fantasy violence and maudlin emotion about this story is what’s really shocking—and that's before we even get to how it's being broadcast with a sense that we are entitled to these feelings, collectively.
This is a traumatic and deeply saddening crime. But who has a right to that level of grief? The families involved in the case—both of them. And that’s about it. Not me, not you, not other parents, not vigilantes.
Collingswood was floored this summer to learn of the violent death of 21-year-old Shelley Johnson of the Tortilla Press. All the way out in Vacaville, C.A., the family of her boyfriend, Paul Aldapa, wrote to remind readers that they had lost someone too in that tragedy.
This is what’s also true of the family of the two juvenile suspects charged in Autumn Pasquale’s death.
If they are convicted of those crimes, they will be known rightly and lawfully as murderers. And that pronouncement will not give any of the children involved in this case back to their parents.
So what are we on the sideline doing screaming for vengeance? What are we owed from this?
- We can deserve a safe community without needing to abandon the reason that should uphold it.
- We can be good parents and loving neighbors without demanding that we beat our breasts and weep and say that tragedies like these form a legitimate basis for revenge.
- We might even wait to see how the trial goes before we choose to react. Being good parents, and knowing that our children will measure their emotional investment by our own, it’s an opportunity to show kids that there is a process at work here.
- Just because we’re as scared that something awful lurks around the corners of our own neighborhoods does not obligate us to lash out blindly. Nor does it excuse the self-righteousness of our anger.
John Donne said it more artfully than you’ll get from me. But if we all are "of mankind," then we owe it to ourselves to get better at sticking together.