Wednesday, August 23, 2006

JonBenet in the Balance

If I had laid odds on the manner of apprehension for JonBenét Ramsey's killer, I would have favored a DNA database hit by some run-of-the-mill Colorado jailbird. He would have been transferred from whichever county jail he had washed up at for his latest cheerleader-flashing, we would have learned some sketchy details about an abusive childhood and a string of dishwashing jobs, and that would have been about it.

Statistically speaking, that is what the perp was going to look like in a case like this. As over-the-top as the JonBenét extravaganza had been, there was little to suggest that the perpetrator--if not a Ramsey--was anyone of particular interest.

This probable ordinariness presented a certain difficulty for both prosecutors and the media. After the longest, most overblown national obsession with a child murder since the Lindbergh baby, after years of tabloid spreads and "48 Hours Investigates," how were they going to sell America on the idea that it all came down to some two-bit psycho and an unlocked window?

JonBenét deserved better than that. She was larger than life, an iconic victim of all that ailed fin de siècle American culture. In the narrative of our mid-90s zeitgeist, she died for the sins of John and Patsy--conspicuously-consuming nouveaux riches who tarted up their 6-year-old like a teenage hooker so Patsy could relive vicariously her long-gone beauty pageant days. But these were our transgressions, too, and we ate up the media cornucopia because we saw in JonBenét a sacrificial lamb who could purge us of our shame.

Fortunately for all involved, the dullness never manifested. Instead, we received a bonanza in one John Mark Karr, apprehended halfway around the world in exotic Thailand. This man was worthy of his role in the law enforcement and media spectacular that swept him to a billion television screens worldwide. The stuff of jet-set parent nightmares, he had roamed the world bathing children of the wealthy and powerful. Obsessed with child murderers, he had corresponded with the killer of Polly Klass and even taken up residence in Polly's hometown of Petaluma, CA. His cat-and-mouse emails with a Colorado journalism professor were the stuff of a Dell Shannon novel, and his address,, incorporated the date of JonBenét's murder. To boot, he dabbled in that old trash-TV standby, the sex change operation.

Arresting Karr in Thailand was guaranteed to produce some East-meets-West law enforcement scenes worthy of Jackie Chan's made-for-the-USA oeuvre, not to mention the international intrigue of our diplomatic attachés' involvement. And Karr delivered on the money shots, with his cryptic press conference admissions, shrimp-and-champagne toasting on the luxury flight home, and overall telegenic creepiness.

I have no idea whether Karr is the genuine article or just an attention-seeking, delusional obsessive who planted a trail of email clues leading to himself and then basked in the glory once it found him. But with so much to live up to, is it possible that the Boulder County authorities extended their credulity just that little bit more than they would for a less media-friendly local? Was the allure of extraditing a globe-trotting expatriate transsexual halfway around the planet just too much to resist?

I am reminded of historian William Manchester's oft-quoted letter to the New York Times:

Those who desperately want to believe that President Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy have my sympathy. I share their yearning. To employ what may seem an odd metaphor, there is an esthetic principle here. If you put six million dead Jews on one side of a scale and on the other side put the Nazi regime--the greatest gang of criminals ever to seize control of a modern state--you have a rough balance: greatest crime, greatest criminals.

But if you put the murdered president of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn't balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the president's death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something.
Likewise, it just would not have done for JonBenét's killer to be a simple lowlife. Not for the Boulder authorities, not for the news media, and not for us. In John Mark Karr, we have found a counterweight solid enough to hold its own across the scales from JonBenét, and all for which we have come to rely on her. Let's hope he's the right guy.

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