Dear Mr. President:
This is Maurice Clemmons:
This is the flukeman monster from the x-files:
This is what any one picking up a copy of the Sunday Seattle Times saw today:
I've written to you about Clemmons before. He committed robbery and assault, raped children and eventually murdered four police officers as they drank coffee. Clemmons is exactly the kind of monster I used to worry about as a small child when my father would get called in the middle of the night to a homicide, or when my mother was out on patrol. He's the kind of man whose madness and brutality and desire to dominate made him violent, erratic and dangerous. But now that I'm grown up and dealing with dangerous people in my own job, I don't believe in monsters. I couldn't grow up in the law enforcement community the way I did and not have an intense, emotional reaction to a cop killer and his disturbing history. But he's no creature, no phantom, he is just a man.
The illustration on the front page of today's Times left me feeling strangely all day. I don't feel sympathy or sadness for Clemmons, I don't want to make excuses for his life or his crimes, I don't want to defend or apologize for him. But I don't like the visual implication that he was sub-human. For one thing, I don't think that the Times would have chosen to illustrate him in such a disturbing way if Clemmons had been white. Mostly, I don't like the editorial decision by the Times to use an illustration rather than his photo. Clemmons wasn't a villain out of a comic book or horror story. He was a man. A terrible, frightening, disturbed man who needs no additional hype to haunt my nightmares. I think the media's inclination toward sensationalism creates the false sense that these dangerous people can be identified on sight. That we will know monsters by their look, or that that they cannot walk among us unnoticed.
This is not, of course, limited to the Seattle Times or to Maurice Clemmons. We make monsters out of our enemies every day, and we've done it throughout history. We comfort ourselves with the idea that you can't understand why some one would become a suicide bomber, that terrorists and killers are just mindless monsters. Maybe this helps some people distance themselves from the terrifying truth that each of us has something in common with those people that we fear. Helps people believe that good people look one way and bad people look another. I don't think that this is a useful lie to tell ourselves. I don't believe that we are safer this way.
Maurice Clemmons is dead. He met his end trying to kill another police officer, and I am not sorry for it. And the Times may well sell more papers (and, apparently, books) attempting to frighten people with this image of Clemmons as a monster, but I will not buy in to the notion that he or any killer is somehow a different creature than me, or than any one of us. The truth is, humans are far more frightening than any monster we can imagine and we will never be able to keep ourselves completely safe from the darkness that lurks where we can never see it coming.