The story of John Mark Karr and his confession in the case of Jon Benet Ramsey is a strange one indeed. When I first heard the breathless bulletins surrounding the arrest in Thailand, I was reminded of two fictional accounts. One was an award-winning short story in an Alfred Hitchcock collection about a man who planned a murder a year in advance. All through that year he marched into the police station to confess to every murder reported in the press. After the cops had become inured to his serial false confessions he was able to commit the actual killing, walk into the station the next day and admit guilt, then be laughingly escorted back to his home.
The other story is from a book by Donald E. Westlake, the master of the comic crime novel. In one book from his famous Dortmunder series, Dortmunder asks his sidekick, Kelp, if a mutual friend of theirs had managed to make his way back from Brazil after running out of money there. Yes, Kelp replied, he had confessed to a murder and been given a free flight home as a presumed extradition. This fellow Karr certainly has all the earmarks of either a grotesque fantasist or a guy who needs to hitch a ride home from Asia. His estranged ex-wife, although shunning the camera, continues to alibi him for the time of Jon Benet’s strangling.
If indeed he is unmasked as a pretender, as seems more likely with each passing hour, one wonders at the sort of mind that casts a wistful eye over the reports of grisly crime, feeling only a twinge of regret: “I coulda been a contender.” We would dearly love to embrace the premise that this is the product of such warping in the human spirit that nothing can be extrapolated therefrom as a reflection upon the state of our society. Yet the sense that this represents the deviant extreme of a broader phenomenon persists.
Look at your Jerry Springer and Maury Povich guests, who compete with each other to alternately acknowledge, deny, and accuse themselves and each other of ever more bizarre behavior. The prize of fame, even in its ugly-stepchild guise of notoriety, is an intoxicant that corrodes the structure of judgment while it blurs the lens of self-preservation. Having one’s antics divert the attention of a mass audience for the most fleeting of moments is achievement enough to justify a lifetime of disorderly conduct.
Is this a tragic byproduct of urbanization and alienation, of the loneliness of life in the big city? Fate seems to doom the modern citizen to the status of a mere cipher, a body living inside a shadow, a face in the crowd, as if everyone was suddenly renamed John Smith and sent out to buy a vanity license plate. How to carve out a niche for oneself in a wall of anonymity?
Or perhaps this goes beyond that to a growing admiration for the freedom that evil appears to represent. In a world that imposes new sets of rules at each level of success, the rascal — not only O. Henry’s gentle grifter but even Thomas Harris’ ghoulish sadist, Hannibal Lecter — offers the allure of a life unimpeded by conscience or stricture. The weakest among us are led to a horrific form of emulation whereby an essentially decent person is led into adopting corrupt behaviors to define himself outside the mainstream and its straitjacket demands.
The health of our community requires that we reassert the striving for greatness as the central theme of human ambition. Neither money nor pleasure nor power shall hold sway over the spirit of Man, but only the constant urge and surge toward maximizing the potential of mind, heart and soul. Not so very long ago every American youngster pulsed with the dream of being another Washington or Lincoln, in the clear understanding that fame takes its meaning from its context. We cannot long survive if those heroes are supplanted by Bundy and Dahmer.
The tale of Jon Benet Ramsey, if not quite sealed by this peculiar event, must remain a horrid memory of the human being at its most degraded and vicious level. It is a story of real people and their pain, one that should be protected from manipulations of both the cynical and pathetic varieties. If circumstances brought a macabre fame to the event, that is regrettable but tolerable; trying to piggyback on this phenomenon is most assuredly not.
Let us redouble our effort to teach our youth to aspire for greatness first and fame only as its second act. Pride must come from building and growing, never from dismantling and destroying. Poor Jon Benet deserves to rest in peace, and her surviving father is entitled to his private mourning. If we must fantasize about being somewhere we were not, let it be at a heroic place on the battlefield, protecting those that live.