Snapshot of a Sick Society

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Quite often a brief news story sums up the collective pathologies of postmodern American society. Here is a recent tragic news item from my local paper, followed by some commentary:

Police call slaying of Hanford woman a random act
Posted at 6:04 p.m. on Thursday, July 28, 2011
By Paula Lloyd / The Fresno Bee

A woman found slain at a Hanford car wash this week was killed randomly when a 17-year-old gang member happened to see her while taking a walk, Hanford police said Thursday.

Denise McVay was washing her car — something she did several times a week — early Tuesday morning before work.

The teen was wandering the streets after leaving a party when he saw McVay at the Royal Car Wash on Garner Avenue at about 5 a.m. and decided to kill her, police said.

The teen “simply wanted to kill somebody that night” and McVay, 49, was “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Capt. Parker Sever said. “It was a purely random act.”

The teen stabbed McVay several times and slit her throat.

The teen took McVay’s money and her car, Sever said, and drove to the home of a fellow gang member, Mauricio Ortiz, 18, of Hanford. Sever said the teen was covered with blood and told Ortiz what he had done.

Ortiz helped him ditch the car at Tachi Palace Casino and went with him to Visalia Mall, where the teen used McVay’s money to buy clean clothes, Sever said.

The teen, whose name was not released because of his age, was booked into the Kings County Juvenile Center on suspicion of murder. Ortiz was booked into the Kings County Jail on suspicion of being an accessory after the fact.

Walk through this story to learn something about our confused American society. First, note the discrepancy between the employed Ms. McVay — washing her car in the early morning hours on her way to work, apparently intent on having a clean automobile when she arrived — and the unidentified youth who, we are told at first, was “taking a walk,” later expanded into “wandering the streets after leaving a party.” How did we go so nonchalantly in a mere two paragraphs from “taking a walk” to “wandering the streets after leaving a party”?

In our present society, an able-bodied young man of 17 has leisure to walk about at 5 a.m. after a night of partying, while a hard-working woman squeezes in such an early morning moment to wash her car in order to appear presentable at work.

Note, furthermore, that our society has no compunction about letting the world know the identity of Ms. Denise McVay, who was horribly murdered and left dead on the pavement of a car wash. But it is worried that we might learn the name of the “17-year-old gang member,” also known as an anonymous “teen.” Yet why are we, as a society, more sensitive to disclosing the identity of a gang-member and suspected killer than of a slain productive worker?

In the transition from a shame culture to a guilt culture, America has become a confused society that values the sensitivities of the felonious living far more than respect for the law-abiding dead. Could it not simply waive anonymity protocols in cases of capital crimes? If 16- or 17-year-old would-be murderers knew that their names, addresses, and photos would be published on commission of a crime, would that create any deterrence to their viciousness — or at least provide solace to the community that barbaric killers do not slide so easily through the special exemptions afforded to immature “teens”?

Unfortunately, the story only becomes more depressing. We next read that the anonymous teen “simply wanted to kill somebody that night,” and, unfortunately, Ms. McVay, 49, was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” So a Capt. Parker Sever goes on to characterize the fact that “the teen stabbed McVay several times and slit her throat” as “a purely random act.”

The law-enforcement officer, who no doubt means well, nonetheless describes a productive worker, striving to clean her car, as “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” But in fact, it is the anonymous teen who is in the wrong place at the wrong time — as if civilization could possibly continue if the majority followed his wrong hours and wrong behavior. Ms. McVay, in fact, was in the right place at the right time, and she should have had every expectation that she could go to the car wash before work without worry that a murderous gang-banger would slit her throat.

What sort of abjectly amoral society have we become when we metaphorically reduce a productive life to being “in the wrong place at the wrong time” — only to worry that the teen murder suspect and his family might suffer from the disclosure of his identity? Perhaps our civilization and our police forces, in fact, are in the wrong places and at the wrong times when we cannot ensure Ms. McVay the humane expectation of basic safety.

Nor do I think that the killing was quite “a purely random act,” for two reasons: (1) I suspect any gang member, as is the wont of such thugs, has had prior brushes with the law, so the latest may well have been a logical escalation of accustomed gang-related behavior. And (2) the “teen” stole Ms. McVay’s car and cash. That suggests that the murder was in some sense a means to an end as well. Apparently law enforcement terms it a “purely random act” because the unidentified killer, or his post facto accomplice, savvy to the legal consequences of premeditated violence, claims that he saw Ms. McVay and abruptly “decided to kill her.” But why believe a murderer or his associate, when it is at least as likely that the gang-banger left his all-night party looking for somebody to rob and commit violence against?

In truth, the teen was an opportunistic predator, on the prowl for an easy victim, which translated into profiling a woman alone. His killing was “random” only to the extent that had he encountered instead three large men washing down a truck at 5 a.m., he surely would have kept his blade sheathed and passed on by with no thought that he “simply wanted to kill somebody that night.” In short, he did not want to kill just anybody that night: He wanted instead to stab an easy somebody, who might offer little resistance, and perhaps take cash and car as a bonus.

Examine what happens next: The murderous teen then “drove to the home of a fellow gang member, Mauricio Ortiz, 18, of Hanford . . . the teen was covered with blood and told Ortiz what he had done. Ortiz helped him ditch the car at Tachi Palace Casino and went with him to Visalia Mall, where the teen used McVay’s money to buy clean clothes.”

The bloody murderer shows up unexpectedly at the home of a friend. Mr. Ortiz apparently decides that such gore is not all that shocking, and so does not suggest that the teen turn himself in, but rather, almost by second nature, helps him to hide the crime. Both gang members apparently know well both the parking lot of the Tachi Palace Casino and the Visalia Mall, where they respectively ditch the car and buy new clothes with the deceased’s hard-earned money. The familiar haunts of a casino and mall do not readily suggest elemental poverty. And did the murderer and his accomplice really go to the mall to buy “clean” clothes? I think it would be more accurate to suggest “new” clothes — given that both undoubtedly had existing spare clothing. Why must we be insulted by taking at face value any such tale, gleaned from either the killer or his accomplice?

It leads us to wonder how many Mauricio Ortizes there are in our area, who at the first suggestion of lucre are quite ready to try to cover up a bloody murder and spend the victim’s cash. If the time comes when there are more of them than there are Denise McVays, civilization is finished.

We end this morality tale with society’s now-standard self-righteous declaration,  “The teen, whose name was not released because of his age . . .” — as if we have evolved morally from a hundred years ago, when the suspect would have enjoyed no such exemption. But what really was “his age,” and did it matter whether the anonymous suspect killer who butchered the hard-working Ms. McVay was chronologically 17 or 50? The original intent of the law was apparently to protect the immature pre-adult, but it has now the effect of directing society’s empathy to a sophisticated anonymous killer and away from his publicly identified victim. Note as well that the murder suspect himself earns only Juvenile Hall; his post facto accessory rates the harder county jail — another of a sick society’s messages that we calibrate age far more than savagery.

I have no doubt that in the next two years a good deal of society’s capital will be invested in this unidentified youth and his named accomplice. Preliminary hearings, state-paid public defenders, an array of psychiatrists, and periodic proclamations from the defense team about particular childhood traumas suffered by the killer — all to be followed by years of legal counsel, further psychological examinations and treatment, and of course, if there is a conviction, nearly $40,000 a year in incarceration expenses — as our fast-paced society races onward and upward, without much thought of one productive citizen, Denise McVay, washing her car in the early morning on her way to work. None of us are exempt from such terrible arithmetic, and we now must live with the realization that tomorrow morning any one of us could be written off as either unlucky or unwise in our demise, while the rights of our killer would be obsessed over.

You see, it is characteristic of a morally bankrupt society to be absorbed with the evil living without much remembrance of the more noble dead. The former gang member and his family by all means must not be embarrassed; the dead woman is reduced to being “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Enough said.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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