The seemingly random nature of a shocking murder allows members of a rural community to remain detached from the source of the violence. But that separation comes at a cost.
It was 5:15 a.m. when I left for work.
Turning off the highway onto a county road, I saw something bright orange in my headlights. I thought it was maybe a road crew getting an early start. There was a mini-van in front of me that stopped and turned on its flashers.
As I got closer I saw it – a fire burning in the middle of the road. After a minute or two the mini-van moved on and I slowly followed.
As I passed the fire I looked closely and it appeared to be a log. The flames were three to four feet high and there was a lot of ash. One side of my brain complained, “Stupid prank, what the hell is wrong with people burning trash in the middle of the road?” The other side of my brain, the one that watches too many Quentin Tarantino movies, laughed nervously and asked “I wonder if that’s a body?”
I called my husband, told him about the fire and asked him to call it in. At work I posted to Facebook complaining about kids who have too much time on their hands and no better way to spend it than to burn trash in the road. Several of my FB peeps live here, and they weren’t really surprised. Sure, they thought it was odd, but not outside the realm of pranks. One made a joke that I had missed the memo to bring marshmallows to roast on my morning commute.
Later that day on my lunch break, I was leisurely working my way through the local headlines when I came across one so horrifying I gasped and pushed myself away from my desk.
The fire was no prank. It was a burning body part, or rather one-fifth of a body, according to the article. The police investigation is on-going, and has now extended into a neighboring state, but we still don’t know what happened.
As we have tried to understand this crime and explain why it happened here, many of us have been on an emotional roller coaster the past few days.
Initially, there was horror and panic. Did some crazed psycho kidnap and murder the victim? Are we all in danger?
Most of us put that idea right out of our heads because this crime looked so familiar. The brutality, the bizarreness, it looked like an episode of “Breaking Bad.” Some speculated it must have been a drug deal gone bad, or a cartel sending a message. This scenario provides a plausible explanation, and gives some small comfort. If it’s drug business, it’s not our business. If you have the poor judgment to get involved with the drug trade, that’s on you.
As the investigation continued we found out the victim didn’t live around here. Somehow that made a difference. Sure someone was murdered horribly, but we could tell ourselves that we had no personal investment, he wasn’t one of ours.
It could be that East Texas has nothing to do with the murder – it’s just the dumping ground. This wasn’t our crime, and it’s just an accident of geography that we are involved at all. At least that’s what we hope. While that’s still horrific we can rest easy knowing the perpetrator is probably long gone.
From the time of the discovery of the victim, little by little, we have been able to separate ourselves from the event, from its horror, and from our own fear. Last week many of us didn’t recognize our own backyards – yes, we have crime here, but not like this, not this public.
Those of us that live in the country want to believe that somehow we are safer, that things like this don’t happen here. Looking out on pastures inhabited by happy pigs and red winged blackbirds sometimes it is easy to forget that we live in a human world, and with that comes crime and violence. Through our collective judgment of the event we find excuse after excuse to justify our mythology of safety. As we progressively distance ourselves from this terrible crime, we give it less and less thought. It did not happen here, the victim was not from here, and we need not concern ourselves. But this comes at a silent price, one we may not even be consciously aware that we are paying, compassion for the dead and those who mourn him.
Kelley Snowden, is an adjunct professor who teaches geography at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She is also a research associate with the Center for Regional Heritage Research at SFASU.