AP Photo/The Dothan Eagle, Jay Hare
An armed man storms on to a bus loaded with school children and, at gunpoint, demands that the bus driver turn over two children. The bus driver refuses and tries to stop the armed man. The armed man shoots the driver, killing him, then grabs one of the children as the others flee. The armed man takes the 5-year-old child, who is autistic, to an underground bunker on his property where a week-long crisis begins. As negotiators try to convince the man to release the boy, they are allowed to deliver toys and medicine to him via a pipe to the bunker. Finally, after managing to lower a hidden camera into the bunker, officials are alarmed by what they see and storm the bunker. The kidnapper is killed, either by agents or by his own hand, and the boy is miraculously rescued, unhurt.
It's a tense, dramatic story, one that seems like it would captivate a nation just as it was captivated by stories like a girl who fell down a well. Had it happened in a large city - New York, Dallas, even, God forbid, Chicago - the coverage would be constant, a 24-hour surveillance with every media outlet descending on the city. A story that touches on all the socio-political hot points in the wake of the Newtown tragedy - gun control, safety of school children, mental health - would surely draw nation-wide, if not world-wide, attention.
But it didn't.
The above story really happened and, for the entire week the crisis lasted, few Americans were aware of it at all.
That's partly because the story didn't happen in New York, Dallas, or Chicago. Not even a mid-sized city like Kansas City, Sacramento, or Memphis. No, the story unfolded in Midland, Alabama, a small town of less than 2,500 people just northwest of Dothan in the southeast corner of the state.
One of the main reason little was said on-air about the crisis, particularly by local outlets, was at the request of local authorities because the kidnapper - Jimmy Lee Dykes - had a television in his bunker and could monitor coverage.
But that still doesn't explain how this story has completely escaped the national conversation, especially online. There's a difference between downplaying a situation and completely ignoring it. Regardless of how much certain media outlets downplayed coverage at law enforcement requests, the story failed to enter the national conversation on gun control, on protecting our school children. Backers of gun control could have rallied behind the bus driver, declared a hero, and how bus drivers should be armed. And backers of gun control will rally around a new call for background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. How much are video games really to blame for a situation like this over the paranoia created by a "Obama will take our guns and freedom!" atmosphere? And could arming the bus driver have prevented any of this from happening at all?
It's a complex issue that requires not only a complex answer, but full engagement, something the Midland crisis never received.
Part of the fact that so much about the Midland crisis was ignored either as a second-tier story or completely was because of where it happened. Trust me. I'm from Alabama. I know how people perceive of my native state. Sometimes, I can't blame them. But in this instance, it was somewhat frustrating given the aforementioned universal issues at play here. This was not just a typical redneck incident; this was a man storming a school bus and threatening the lives of nearly two dozen school children. An unarmed man died trying to protect them. Another man died after he held a child hostage for a week. This is larger than any regional bias; this is a national issue and we have to be willing to look past stereotypes, to be willing to accept both the smaller, hyperlocal context as well as the larger, national one. This is not some case of a drunken redneck brawl gone awry; this was a very real crisis with a larger social impact.
It's also yet another school violence story, something that is understandably causing many in the country to reach a certain level of burnout. It's the same reason smaller shootings where maybe just one or two people are killed or hurt barely register a blip on the rader. Here in Chicago, we're still mourning the death of Hadiya Pendleton and trying to figure out what we can do to help and keep from feeling helpless, even as we recognize we've been through this nightmare before. We can't allow ourselves to become used to this. We talk about how gut-wrenching it is to hear the stories from Newtown or see video of Derrion Albert beaten to death in an afterschool brawl but if we reach the point where we cease to flinch at the mention of even just one person dying from gun violence or one person who shouldn't have had a gun doing something violent, then we've already lost. Once we stop caring about any one person, we have little, if any, hope left.
But, lastly, the blame falls on all of us as consumers of media. The first two reasons certainly play into it. It's hard to imagine someone in Chicago, a city plagued by its own problems of violence and innocent victims, caring much about what they perceive is some crazy redneck with a shotgun in some podunk Alabama town. (To be fair, my following of the case was heightened by the fact I'm an Alabama native.) But this tendency to disengage also places us at fault for refusing to acknowledge a situation that, regardless of the geographic location or the motive (still unknown at this time), is still important to the large discussion overall. Dykes has been described by neighbors as a paranoid survivalist and there's a likelihood we'll find out even more about his mental health in the coming days.
The same thing was said about Nancy Lanza, the mother of the alleged Newtown shooter. While Nancy is not suspected of having any ties to Adam's alleged actions, it's still worth discussing from a position of the mental well-being of people who have access to guns and how they're allowed to obtain them.
But the media reacts to what readers are interested in - trust me, I'm one of those media people that helps direct that. And while we certainly saw a bump in readership on the stories about the Midland crisis posted on our website, it still didn't overcome the amount of readers heading towards other stories, both understandable (Hadiya Pendleton) and trivial (anything involving Super Bowl commercials). We as a nation have to be willing to face all of theses stories - Hadiya and Midland, an Oklahoma student's suicide and gang problems in New Orleans - before we can hope for any meaningful change. Ignoring any aspect of this only hinders our ability to come to terms with what's happening.
It shouldn't matter if one person dies or 26 people die; one is too many. Those following the Hadiya Pendleton case know that already. It was the same with Derrion Albert before that and Blair Holt before that. One death is unacceptable and we have to work against all of these issues - regional bias, burnout, disengagement - to truly move ourselves towards any sort of hope for solving this nationwide crisis.
Fixing this problem isn't just about our own individual cases as a nation of separate cities and states; it's about accepting the broader view about how we impact each other and how we can learn from each other.
For now, though, two men are dead - one an innocent man who tried to protect his charges and the other a kidnapper who met his end holed up in a bunker. All we can do is be thankful that the young boy, identified only as "Ethan," has survived to celebrate his 6th birthday tomorrow, and continue to push the issue, to push for resolution, and to push our nation to have what will be a painful conversation but one that must be had. And we all have to accept responsibility in making that happen.