COLUMN: The Politics Of Blame & Fear

*This is an opinion column*

TUSCALOOSA, AL — A few years ago I was teaching an advanced news-writing class to college students when a bright young scholar asked me a question I still think about to this day.

“Why do people in general seem to care more or act differently when a White person goes missing as opposed to a Black person?”

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I certainly had no answer at the time and today am not much closer to truly solving such a complex question as a lower middle-class White dude. But after years of mulling the problem, so much intellectual progress I felt I had made over the years was thrown out the window when 25-year-old Hoover native Carlee Russell returned home Saturday after being missing for 49 hours.

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The case has captured the attention of the entire country, namely considering Russell told police she was abducted when she stopped along Interstate 459 after seeing a toddler walking along the road.

It was a compelling story from the start and one that warranted the attention it received until Russell returned safely and into the present moment.

Still, Russell has since declined a second interview with investigators and, on Wednesday, Patch reported that Hoover Police — with assistance from a menagerie of other law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service — found that Russell’s internet search history raised serious questions about her mindset at the time she went missing.

Here’s a quick refresher:

But let’s return to the original question … you can read that full story from earlier today here.

Looking at the issue of how people react to news of a missing person is what caught my attention early on in this case, despite the fact this occurred just outside of my general coverage area, which pretty much stops at the Jefferson County line. This non-scientific study of how people digest news has been one of the windmills I keep tilting at in the hopes of finally figuring it out.

But, as many of Patch’s readers will recall, there was already a primer event in west Alabama that this reporter believes helped amplify the hysteria in the Carlee Russell case, despite the outcomes of both cases and whether folks want to admit it or not.

As Patch reported, state authorities cancelled an Amber Alert the morning of July 11 after a Walker County 9-month-old, Harlow Freeman, went missing for nearly 24 hours in Parrish, only to be found safe nearby — but not before the narrative made the rounds that the vehicle had been stolen and the infant abducted.

The story, even during its short lifespan in the media ecosystem and despite yielding little in the way of a factual conclusion, ignited a litany of wild conspiracies similar to what has been seen with the Carlee Russell case. Walker County is a wild place for criminal activity, sure, but the theories became far too farfetched far too quickly for it to not be a cause of concern for public safety.

Baby-snatchers in our community. Lock up your doors and be very afraid.

Utterly wild theories dominated both cases as this reporter tried to take a measured approach to considering the circumstances in each instance before forming any conclusions.

The complicated nuances of the Jamea Harris murder case in Tuscaloosa has weighed heavy on me with every crime story I’ve covered since January and caused me to ride the brakes on instances of violent crimes or high drama until the details come into clearer focus.

Too often in the news business are we quick to write up an easy press release about a violent act — likely the most pivotal moment in that person’s life — and coldly move on to the next story.

I’m certainly guilty of it more times than I’m not and am constantly trying to improve upon a practice that has been mechanical for so many years.

As to be expected with these stories, though, local media was more than willing to churn out plenty of fodder for the social media crazies to run with. Local news in all its forms consists of people who have a job to do and I don’t blame them — hell, I’m one of them — but it’s what the public does with the information we give them that worries me.

And especially concerning is the way in which we give them said information.

I will gladly concede that both recent instances were high-octane cases in the moment that should have been treated with a sense of urgency. But how in the hell did we get to the point where the conspiracies become the loudest voices in the public discourse?

Even this morning, just hours before the press conference in Hoover, my social media feed was peppered with legitimate outlets and amateur sleuths, alike, trying to pick apart pixilated videos from TikTok to reinforce the abduction narrative they so wanted to see be the end result of the case.

After all, it’s a much sexier true crime story for the media if there’s a truly insidious criminal element to it or if it involves any kind of verifiable ultra-violence to tell the masses about in a headline that they’ll surely click.

Sure, I concede that there’s no definitive proof Carlee Russell lied about being abducted and I think everyone, regardless of political stripe, is thankful she’s alive. But even the police don’t seem to believe that she was abducted and admitted today that they have nothing in the way of evidence to validate such a narrative.

This is where I feel I may have found an “ah-ha” moment to help answer the question at the very beginning of this story. And it’s an important one in understanding how people react to major news events.

Working against what I initially felt was some kind of deep-seated racism I couldn’t understand at the crux of how the public reacts when people go missing, I couldn’t help but notice the stark political lines in how individuals perceived the real-time developments in each case.

Not just that, but even in how they perceived the opinions of those around them in the faceless void of social media.

Racism is, indeed, a pressing issue in this country. But I’d be lying if I said politics didn’t stand out in this chapter of my journalism career as the source of what began to divide people in what they thought happened.

If folks much smarter than the author of this column cared enough, they could make some fascinating digital metrics to show the immediate shift in expressed opinion from many believing wholeheartedly in the abduction narrative and its conspiratorial nuances, only to pivot within hours and call for authorities to throw the book at Russell following the latest updates.

There are compelling similarities between this shift in perspective and the cold water dumped on the narrative that University of Alabama basketball standout Brandon Miller was some kind of sadistic killer. But I digress.

It’s important to point out that this all comes at a time when human trafficking and pedophilia — for whatever reason — have entered the political debate as platform issues on the national campaign trail.

These are disturbing crimes that have existed at some level in our world since the beginning of recorded history. So, it’s not like these are new concepts.

But with troubling aberrations like the far-right QAnon movement, “Pizza Gate” and the suspect narrative presented in the highly politicized feature film “The Sound of Freedom,” open rhetoric in our communities had moved away from logic and instead is slouching toward a disturbingly misinformed horizon.

“Woke” has become the placeholder for the old insult of “Communist” — despite most of the angriest voices not being able to define what either term means.

And, for instance, the common response in opposition to those supporting LGBTQ+ rights on social media is now often “ok groomer” or “pedo.”

Even just in the last couple of days, the author of this column was accused on Twitter of being a pedophile because, according to this faceless account, both of my parents — whom are saints with no criminal records and both deeply conservative — molested me as a child and groomed me to become a pedophile.

Go doom-scroll on social media and you’ll see it. These accusations have become the new bang-bang response.

And if a woman or child goes missing in our community today, many are quick to assume it must be the result of a satanic cabal operating some vast network of human suffering — never mind the outcomes of the cases where the perceived victims return home without issue.

We just move on to the next thing to get twisted up about.

I’ve tried to chalk up this strange, paranoid behavior to the impact of the internet and its vast marketplace of ideas. But an underlying theme noted by this reporter and expressed even at the local level is one where the average upstanding citizen makes the knee-jerk rush to fears of human-trafficking or perverted violence ready to bash their down down.

We have real-world instances of the sex trade in Tuscaloosa all the time, mostly the highly publicized prostitution busts made by the compassionate and hard-working folks with the West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force.

And it’s pretty much accepted in these parts by those of all political beliefs that the interstate system between Atlanta and Birmingham is, indeed, one of the busiest arteries used in the sex trade in this hemisphere.

That is reality. So it’s not like the conspiracy theories are wholly baseless. In fact, it’s the kernels of truth that seem to give these theories their fuel, especially when amplified by a willing media trying to make sense of a missing persons story.

Sex-trafficking and pedophilia are real issues that should be taken seriously and not used flippantly to justify some over-politicized worldview or to one-up your neighbor in a political debate. It’s far too serious to take so lightly.

But, to the chagrin of conspiracy theorists and internet sleuths, alike, the theories posed of a little man pretending to be a baby on the side of the interstate to bait a sex trafficking victim doesn’t seem to be the case here.

No, what worries this reporter the most is the curious panic that both of the aforementioned cases spurred and the ensuing vitriol aimed first at anyone who questioned circumstances and then squarely at Russell after a long couple of weeks in west Alabama.

It’s the wild conspiracies that are bothersome, sure. But it’s also the bleeding-heart social media posts that lament the moral state of our country and its lack of Christian faith — only to be followed by the unforgiving heel-turn calls for Russell to be punished the second the details of her initial story came into question.

None of this resembles justice. While I’m skeptical if justice was ever truly blind, it’s more apparent than ever that many now want their justice to mirror their political values.

It’s about catharsis and getting one over on “the other,” not anything resembling fairness.

Indeed, I’ve read “lock her up” so much today it feels like 2016 all over again — with a similar level of tinfoil-hat absurdity. Personally, this reporter believes there is still more to the story yet to be told in the case of Carlee Russell and I’m not a believer in harsh punishments for non-violent offenders.

Should Russell face some kind of consequences if her story turns out to be a fabrication?

Absolutely … but not at the expense of the rest of her life and especially not at the cost of how we treat each other and view the world.

The beautiful thing about the two aforementioned case studies is that both people who went missing are alive and back with the people they love and who love them. And this provides us, as the media and public, an easy-earned lesson that should give us pause the next time someone goes missing.

Yes, every instance of a missing person should be taken seriously — seriously to the point that goofy TikTok conspiracies and outlandish theories are taken with a grain of salt or outright dismissed for what they are, not amplified to the point of dominating the narrative and, thus, having an impact on public opinion when the case is closed.

In today’s body politic, we want so badly to find even a granular anecdote in the real world to weaponize against those on the other side of the aisle — especially if that weapon is something as seemingly vulnerable as a 9-month-old White baby in Walker County or a 25-year-old Black woman in Jefferson County.

There’s plenty to worry about in this world, sure. But it’s time we stop living in fear of the non-existent monsters under our beds.

Ryan Phillips is an award-winning journalist, editor and opinion columnist. He is also the founder and field editor of Tuscaloosa Patch. The views expressed in this column are his own and in no way reflective of any views held by our parent company or sponsors.

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