Hildegarde

Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

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So, over the last few days, I’ve been working a lot, and I haven’t been paying much attention to the news.  For one thing, we’re in the run-up to a Presidential election, and that means that most of the news is of the “shock! horror! the grass is green!” genre of journalism. 

This is when the people on Side A expressed their complete astonishment that their opponent on Side B believes some perfectly obvious and well known tenet of his own side.

Shock! Horror! The Republican thinks we should get the federal government out of education!  Shock! Horror! The Democrat thinks we should actually raise taxes on some people!

This kind of thing gets to be fairly boring fairly quickly, so during Presidential election season, I tend to take less notice of the news than I usually do.

That explains how I missed the biggest news to hit this town in over a decade.

You have to understand something.

I live in a very, very small town.  We do not have violent crime here, pretty much ever.  Once a week, our little town newspaper comes out and produces a “police blotter” article that lists the local arrests.  The arrests always consist of one or two domestic arguments, a little sprinkling of “failure to appear,” and a whole load of DUI and low-grade drug arrests.  Somebody was getting tanked and weaving around on Sabbaday Lane.  A bunch of teenagers smoked enough weed to get stupid and tried to swim naked in the Shepaug River at midnight.

It’s important to remember that this is what we usually get, because the news we’ve been getting this week has been nothing like it. 

It hasn’t even been like the news of the last murder in this town, which happened over a decade ago, and was an ugly but unpremeditated end to a domestic argument.

In this case, what happened is almost certainly going to make the true crime shows I like so much, and it went like this:

A mother and her grown son lived together in a small house on the a residential street close to the police department.

They were a little short on funds, so they decided to rent out their basement as an apartment. 

The people they found for tenants were a mixed race couple.  The woman was an immigrant from Poland.  The man was African-American.

What the mother and son didn’t realize was that this couple had criminal records, the woman for fraud and theft, the man for a whole string of violent crimes.

The trouble started almost immediatly, when the mother and son began to object to people coming and going at all hours and to the filthiness of the basement apartment, which got trashed in record time.

There then started a whole series of loud arguments, almost all of them at night, which appeared to be the only time the tenants were ever home. 

Neighbors complained.  The police were called on several occasions.  Everything started up again the next night.

Then, about a week ago, it all stopped.  There were no more violent arguments.  There were no more cars and people coming and going in the middle of the night.  The tenants appeared to have moved away.  Nobody was surprised, because the mother and son landlords had been talking about evicting them for weeks.

Four or five days went by, and one of the neighbors began to detect a really awful, overpowering smell.  She thought about knocking on the door, but given what had been going on in that house for the last several months, didn’t want to get herself into anything.

She therefore called 911, and the police came out, and what they found was–well,  you can guess.

There were the bodies of the mother and her adult son, both clearly murdered, and both clearly left to rot for close to a week. 

Everything else of value in the house was gone, include the landlords’ car, their couch, and their television.

The car was picked up two days later, in Rhode Island, driven by the poor guy who’d bought it, completely innocently, from the tenants. 

The tenants had disappeared.

Now, as murder mysteries go, this isn’t much of one. 

It’s almost entirely certain that the murderers will turn out to be the tenants, and the pictures of the tenants they’ve been flashing around on the new makes you wonder how the landlords ever agreed to rent to them in the first place.

I think most of us would like to believe that we’d have more sense, or at least more of a sense of self-preservation, than to have anything to do with these people.

But as a phenomenon in this place, this is rather interesting. 

We are sort of out of the way here.  The tenants were neither of them local people, which brings up the issue of how they found this particular apartment to rent in the first place. 

If you’re living in Danbury or Waterbury or New Britain, your first choice would not be to get yourself an apartment that is not close enough to any of them for comfortable commuting. 

That is assuming that you ever saw the ad for the rental to begin with.  A lot of people are saying now that the landlords must have put an ad in one of the major local papers, like the Waterbury Republican-American or the Danbury News-Times.

And there’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not that was why what happened, happened–the landlords b\put their ad in a paper that was going to draw in people from Away, and thereby got tenants they didn’t know anything about.

In fact, there has been a lot of discussion, period, and what I notice is that it is all discussion meant to reassure people that this would never happen to them.  The landlords made mistakes the rest of us wouldn’t make.  The landlords put themselves in harm’s way unnecesarily.  The landlords did something that they shouldn’t have done, even if they had the best intentions.

It always astonishes me how frequently we in this country respond to other people’s tragedies by trying to find some way in which they brought it on themselves–or, if that doesn’t work, some way in which they deserved it.

We even have a cute little catch phrase for it–blaming the victim!–that is supposed to make us feel guilty that we’re not being more sympathetic to the people involved.

Unfortunately, the catch phrase tends to come out in circumstances in which the victim did indeed do something to bring on the mess he’s in.

In cases that are just random blind chance, we quickly go looking for an “explanation.”

Are you dying of cancer at thirty-six?  You must be a smoker or a drinker or morbidly obese.  Did you lose your job at Winkle Corporation and find yourself unable to get another?  You must have a reputation for being slipshod and behind schedule, or your work must never have been very good.

When we can’t find an explanation of that kind, we do something worse.

We decide that the victims must have deserved it.  Somehow, in some cosmic sense, their own behavior got the universe mad at them, and the universe has taken its revenge.

I heard a story last week on CNN about two brothers in Colorado, young children, who, a couple of years ago, lost both their parents.  I came in on the story too late to find out why the parents died, if it was illness or accident or suicide or a combination of things.

But the parents died, leaving the two young children on their own.  They were taken in by their grandmother, whom they loved and who loved them, so it worked out better than it often does in cases like theirs.

They settled into their grandmother’s house.  The started to build new lives for themselves.

And then the Colorado wild fires came along, and burned their grandmother’s house to the ground.

I don’t know what kind of convoluted logic it’s going to take to convince these kids–and each other–that they did something to “deserve” all this.

But I do know it’s coming.

Written by janeh

July 12th, 2012 at 9:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to ''

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  1. Luck. It’s certainly true that some days you just can’t buy a break. You could stock graveyards with people who died young because their number was up–a volcano erupted, an airplane fell out of the sky or a brand-new ship sank. And it’s certainly true that we often comfort our selves by explaining how it couldn’t happen to us.

    That said, are any horse-breeders out there prepared to pay as much for stud fees from an unlucky horse as for a Derby winner? Lincoln, who knew nothing about military science, spent much of the Civil War promoting generals who won battles and dismissing ones who lost. I have no doubt some of the promoted winners just got lucky–in their choice of opponents if nothing else–and some of the dismissed might have done better another time. But does anyone imagine that promoting and dismissing without regard to results would have worked just as well? Time and chance happen to all things, indeed. But we can’t plan or conduct failure analysis on that basis. When things go wrong, the literally vital question is what was DONE that might have been done differently? Nothing else is useful. It is not “blaming the victim” in any meaningful sense to observe that if Joe hadn’t taken his Guccis and his Armani into the high crime district at night and flashed a wad of cash, he probably wouldn’t have gotten mugged.

    (It is, to be fair, equally unhelpful to say it must have been something the kids did in a previous life. You just don’t run into it as often.)

    As for our particular pair of landlords and their unwise choice of tenants, I’ll never study the case to find out, but they may not have thought they had a choice in tenants, and indeed they may not have. We’ve done a LOT with “non-discrimination” laws in recent years. Stop by the leasing office and there’s a whole laundry list of conditions it is strictly forbidden to take into account because our wise and benevolent government “knows” they aren’t relevant, and the list keeps getting longer. DC is working on a law making it illegal to ask about criminal convictions on job applications unless the particular offense is relevant to the job. (Quick! Is three arrests for possession relevant when you’re giving him access to the petty cash? How about the assault charge?)

    Some of those laws exempt owner-occupied dwellings. Some don’t. And how many months’ rent would it cost to find out which is true by asking a lawyer? Like to go to court and explain that you’re not biased against mixed-race couples, but you just didn’t like the looks of this pair? Please remember that the owners pay for their own lawyer, while the other side may well be taxpayer-funded. I can see someone deciding that even if they might win, it would be cheaper to let the new tenants loot the place than to refuse to rent to them, and it probably didn’t occur until much too late that it was a matter of life and death.

    In which case, most national-level politicians from Hubert Horatio Humphrey down to the present day might reasonably be regarded as accessories to this particular murder. Any hope of an indictment?

    robert_piepenbrink

    12 Jul 12 at 5:57 pm

  2. Well of course the universe cannot be arbitrary. If it were, then I, personally, the center of the universe, and those I love (slightly off-center) would be subject to the same slings and arrows as all those unworthy, unspecial and undeserving plebs out there.

    None of my money, spiritual worth or good deeds and behavior would make a spit of difference, and that just cannot be!

    Isn’t that the basis of all religion? To somehow influence the universe not to steamroll you and yours if you just…pray, worship, sacrifice, bargain, refrain from sin, dance in the moonlight naked, tithe, buy an indulgence or two? It’s all buying an indulgence at the end.

    If someone who encounters misfortune “did” something to deserve it, then we can theoretically avoid it by not doing that same thing. Don’t walk in dark places and you’ll never be mugged. Don’t eat butter and you won’t have a heart attack. Don’t smoke and you won’t get cancer….oh wait.

    One neighbor died at age 31, leaving a wife and 3 young sons, from lung cancer. Never smoked, neither did his parents. Turned out they tested his childhood home and found radon gas in the basement. Oops. Why did he die and not his parents? I guess he didn’t pray enough.

    The Bargainers With the Universe just don’t seem to notice that those who don’t follow their creed are subject to the same general balance of good and bad shit dropping on their heads. And sometimes, when I see ridiculously rich people who seem to have gotten that way while being incredibly stupid, banal, and venal, I admit to a certain amount of bitterness.

    Lymaree

    12 Jul 12 at 6:14 pm

  3. Luck may have played a part. Jane says she lives in a very,very small town. How many people were there who wanted to rent a basement apartment? Perhaps the mother and son has a choice of renting to that couple or leaving the apartment vacant for months.

    As for lung cancer, accidents etc, I long ago decided that the universe doesn’t care what happens to me.

    jd

    12 Jul 12 at 6:26 pm

  4. The religious are among the few who actually face up to the problem of evil – although admittedly some of them don’t find a solution that they like, and revert to the bred-in-the bone tendency to try to fix life.

    It’s the rest of humanity who persist in thinking that if only they could do things right, life would be perfect. Look at all the experts who are going to cure all disease by social engineering!

    At the same time, we need a way to look dispassionately at tragedies and learn from them – without neglecting to condole with the survivors I hope!

    Our own least-favourite neighbour hasn’t killed anyone yet. His presence became known when his pit bulls killed a local dog. Not his fault – someone must have let them out, and no one apparently could prove differently. This is still a smallish city, and it took a very short time for word to get around that this is the same guy who was fined for letting his dogs run loose in a local park after they injured another dog while running loose. And the one who ran that sleazy strip club downtown until the city managed to get it closed. Bit off part of someone’s ear in a drunken brawl while on parole for drug offences. And he’d rented the place under his mother’s maiden name, apparently finding it difficult to rent a place to live. The woman who rented it to him said everyone had a right to a place to live. Which they do, if you believe in postive rights, but does it have to be in MY backyard? And killing a dog isn’t the same as killing and robbing humans.

    But there are times when I think it would be sooo much nicer just to, ummm, run some people out of town. Illegal & immoral & definitely against reigious teachings, yes, but really, some offences just tempt one to think those things.

    Cheryl

    12 Jul 12 at 6:52 pm

  5. Isn’t ‘blame the victim’ largely based on a desire to feel safe? This bad thing happened to someone else. How do I keep it from happening to me? It’s trying to learn from the experience of others, and a need to feel better about the world than facing that the only reason we haven’t been raped/murdered/robbed is because nobody has wanted to do that to us badly enough to make a good effort at it. That’s my benign view of the phenomenon anyway.

    nkateb

    12 Jul 12 at 9:34 pm

  6. There’s a furore going on down here at the moment about an 18 year-old who was allegedly punched by a random assailant while walking down the street in one of the most, if not the most, notoriously violent parts of Sydney, the infamous Kings Cross which is a bit like, and probably a good deal worse, than Times Square in the bad old days. Supposedly, this kid had just got off the train a little after 10.00PM and was heading for a “night club”. He was, according to his parents and all who knew him, a nice boy who was just out for a fun night.

    All over the parts of Sydney that are frequented by the partying youth, these sorts of violent attacks are a weekly event. The kids get drunk, often taking a whole range of unknown and unknowable party drugs, and then one thing leads to another.

    Now, if this guy really was the nice boy that everyone claims him to have been, he almost certainly would not have set foot in Kings Cross. It is a teeming sewer of strip shows, hundreds if not thousands of prostitutes (hush ma mouf, “sex workers”) trawling for trade on almost every square yard of the strip, with booze and drugs available on demand virtually every inch of the way. There is a police presence, but it is usually too little too late to prevent frequent violence.

    Everyone in Sydney understands this. You would have to live on the dark side of the moon not to be aware of the Cross’s evil reputation. Any US soldier, sailor or airman who ever spent some R&R in Sydney since World War II, and there are hundreds of thousands of them, know that Kings Cross is an ugly tip.

    So, all that kid had to do was to stay home, or well clear of Partyland, and he’d be alive today. This doesn’t excuse the killer, but nor does it absolve the victim from the responsibility for his own fate.

    I don’t think there is the slightest thing wrong with sheeting home a fair share of the blame to such people, and there but for the grace of the gods go I.

    Mique

    13 Jul 12 at 1:42 am

  7. Yes, I agree that trying to figure out what the victim did ‘wrong’ is often inspired by our own desire to be safe, but it’s only partly rational. Yes, we can often learn from the mistakes of victims – both ourselves and other victims. But there are also cases in which there is nothing much to learn other than that, to quote the title of a book I didn’t actually read, bad things happen to good people (or, as I’d prefer to put it, to people innocent of blame or responsibility. Sometimes, you just happen to be the person who has a cell that mutates into a cancerous form or just another worker caught in a massive layoff by people who are going by the numbers – so many at this level have to go.

    However, quite often, especially in the more tragic cases, there is quite enough blame to go around and quite possibly there is something for others to learn – but we’d like to do it without hurting survivors. A student was killed crossing the road laat week. Is the driver to blame? What about the student’s decision to cross a multi-lane road away from the lights? Every driver has a story about the pedestrian who seemed to come out of nowhere; every pedestrian has taken a chance and darted across a busy road. Sometimes the only positive thing to come from a tragedy is a lesson to avoid the next one. Sometimes, of course, there’s not even that, and all the friends and family can do is get through it as well as possible.

    Mique, my mother has a tale about one of our neighbours whose ‘nice boys’ who were never involved in anything according to their parents, could be seen sneaking into their home in the wee hours. A lot of the murders and violent assaults of tourists in Mexico that have been in the news the last few years have taken place just outside bars late at night.

    And really, I feel bad blaming some young man for being stupid and careless and getting drunk or high in the wrong bar in the wrong country…but if we don’t look straight at things, we can’t learn from them.

    Cheryl

    13 Jul 12 at 7:52 am

  8. Consider this article http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2012/0713/Michigan-students-sue-school-district-for-violating-their-right-to-read

    If I wonder aloud whether the parents made any effort to provide books for their children, would I be criticized for “blaming the victim”?

    jd

    13 Jul 12 at 8:19 pm

  9. That school system sounds like it has worse problems than the lawsuit – filthy toilets, not enough books, violation of a state law about special assistance, a massive deficit – no wonder no one can find the manager to do an interview!

    Really, at the bare minimum, they could keep the toilets clean even if they can’t afford books (!!!). Here, if the water goes out so the toilets don’t flush, the whole place is closed down within half a day. The schools know damn well if they don’t do it, workplace safety or public health will.

    Many parents who lack education themselves depend too much on the schools to provide everything necessary – aided and abetted by the kind of teacher who wants to be considered and expert and a professional of the kind one leaves everything to. Even doctors don’t get that level of deference these days, at least not from everyone.

    Probably from those painfully aware of their own lack of education, I suppose, though.

    Cheryl

    14 Jul 12 at 10:24 am

  10. I notice what the article doesn’t say: how much is being spent per pupil per year. DC, for instance, has managed to provide insufficient textbooks, leaky roofs and abominable test scores while spending about $15,000 per student per year. New York City is I think above $11,000 for often similar results. It takes incredible graft to get results like that. (Yes, I count layer upon layer of non-teaching supervisors and administration as part of the graft.)

    But I bet the ACLU is convinced the problem will go away with more money. They seem to think like that–if “think” is the appropriate word.

    robert_piepenbrink

    14 Jul 12 at 11:14 am

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