Unknown Soldiers: Compare Coverage of Heroes, Criminals
What did Jacob Chestnut like on his pizza? Did John Gibson like rock 'n' roll music? We don't know the answers to these questions, nor should we. They're intimate life details. But we know almost nothing about our fallen heroes.
It was a splendid tribute to allow the two officers to lie in the Capitol Rotunda, an honor normally reserved for the most public American figures. The flags flew at half-staff and Congress canceled business for two days out of respect for the men killed by a gunman in the US Capitol. The president lauded them for "quiet courage and uncommon bravery." We bade farewell to these men with almost every honor our society can give. And yet, we still know little more than sketchy details about the men we've laid to rest with such profound respect.
Compare our knowledge of Mr. Gibson and Mr. Chestnut with our knowledge of Russell Weston Jr., the alleged shooter. We've learned more about him than we have about the officers we deem heroes but treat as unknowns. We've seen Mr. Weston's Montana home on television, seen his childhood photos, and heard from his parents, neighbors, and friends.
In the coming weeks we'll learn more and more about Weston. The media will explore every nuance of his life as Gibson and Chestnut fade into distant memory. The criminal-justice system will focus on the defendant and pay only moderate attention to the victims. Does this mean we care more about killers than cops?
As a child, I hung a wanted poster for Jesse James in my room. I played with a plastic John Dillinger. With childhood innocence, I considered them heroes. Even later, when I decided life was about catching the bad guys, I read books and watched documentaries about Al Capone, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Lucky Luciano.
A book about Chestnut and Gibson isn't likely to be written. We write books about cops, but mostly those who've gone bad. Joseph Wambaugh's police hero in "The Onion Field" falls pathetically into petty theft. Mark Putnam, an FBI agent in "Above Suspicion," kills his informant in a rage.
We're attracted to the macabre because it's unusual. We lampoon the media for giving us just what we want - a look at the dark side. Yet, when we see it, we're repelled and complain. We beg to hear about heroes like Chestnut and Gibson but quickly get bored with their stories, because they're ordinary people.
This is the lesson Gibson and Chestnut have taught. Thousands of people passed by them daily, yet many never knew their names until they were shot. How many of us pass the janitor in our building where we work without even so much as learning his name or if he has a family? When we climb on the bus, do we call the driver by name? Somehow, in the hectic rush, we begin to think people are generic entities designed to serve us.
Gibson and Chestnut remind us that, behind every badge, there's a human being with a story. We should know something about the people we call heroes. We should wonder about Chestnut's pizza preference and Gibson's music.
* Matthew J. Miller is a federal law enforcement officer in Sioux Falls, S.D.