As a rule of thumb, people tend to be much more outspoken on the internet than they are in real life. I think it’s because they can’t see and usually don’t know who they’re talking to: it’s like shouting into a void. Hence the internet is a wonderful avenue for free expression and facilitates creativity. However, it also facilitates spitefulness, rudeness, crudity and gossip. I’ve seen a lot of that in discussions of crimes and missing people.
A lot of times, if a woman disappears, blog posters and web board commenters say a lot of nasty things about her husband or boyfriend and say he “must” have killed her, or they “have a feeling” he harmed her. Even if there is no evidence against the significant other. Even if the police have ruled him out as a suspect. The same happens to the parents of missing children. Many people will blame them for the child’s disappearance. If they don’t accuse them of actually killing the kid, they say negligent parenting lead to the child’s disappearance. For example: “I can’t believe she left her eight-year-old unattended in another room for a whole hour without checking on her. That’s just inexcusable.” Or: “I can’t believe he let his teen daughter leave the house without a cell phone.”
Worst of all, I think, are cruel posts criticizing the missing person themselves. Often these posters have no idea what they’re talking about, but that doesn’t stop them from saying nasty things about the MP and suggesting that he/she must have been up to no good. A real-life example: the missing woman Margaret Haddican-McEnroe occasionally used another name, Sherwood Haley, and articles about the case noted this. I saw one comment on an article saying something to the effect of, “She was using an alias name. Why? She must have been leading a double life of some kind. I bet she was a prostitute or something.” I was appalled to read that. Margaret had a perfectly innocent reason to use the name Sherwood Haley: she’d been adopted, and Sherwood Haley was her birth name. (A terrible, awful name to give a baby girl, but that’s beside the point.) So it’s not even really an alias. I can just imagine how horrible and angry her husband and family would have felt if they had come across that post. I don’t think the poster necessarily had any malicious intent; he/she may have been just thinking aloud and forgot that anyone in the world can read the post. But that’s no excuse. The poster was libeling a woman they didn’t know, a woman who in all likelihood was the victim of a heinous crime.
I try to be careful not to criticize the families of the missing unless there’s evidence that they deserve it. I’ve done several posts on Adam Herrman and his adoptive mother and father, but frankly, it’s obvious what happened there. In absence of actual evidence, I NEVER say I have a “feeling” that a specific person must have killed the MP. That kind of statement is baseless and unhelpful; all it can do is hurt.
That’s not to say I don’t get “feelings.” In one case of a missing toddler, Lucy Meadows, I had my suspicions of her mother for years. Mom claimed Lucy disappeared from a parking lot in the time it took her (Mom) to walk around the side of their car. That seemed unlikely to me, that an abductor could grab Lucy that quickly and get away without being seen. But I kept my thoughts to myself, because I could well have been mistaken about Mom, and if I was I didn’t want to inflict more pain on the family. It turned out I was probably right—a few years ago, an eyewitness came forward with a statement that strongly implicates the missing girl’s mother. Mom hasn’t been charged yet, but there is actual evidence now, and I feel comfortable stating my opinion in public.
Some people who talk about “feelings” get them for the stupidest reasons. In an interview with Shannon Tanner, the missing girl Bianca Piper‘s mom, Tanner said she met someone randomly who brought up the case. The other woman didn’t know she was speaking to Bianca’s mother. The woman said she thought Tanner must have killed Bianca, because “she didn’t cry hard enough on TV.” If I were Shannon Tanner, I would have punched that woman then and there. Even reading about this in the news gave me the urge to track that person down and give them a piece of my mind.
A lot of people base their “feelings” on reactions of the so-called suspect after the disappearance. As if all innocent loved ones of a missing person should act exactly the same, as if there’s a secret written code of behavior for that situation! You can never tell how you’re going to react under extreme circumstances, and when the time comes it may very well be not at all what you would expect. To give another example: a little over a year ago I accidentally ran my car into high water late at night in below freezing weather in a desolate area where I didn’t really know where I was. The car filled up with water and it looked like there was a good chance that I was going to drown or freeze to death. (Conditions were so bad that even after the rescue people found me, it took half an hour or so for them to actually get to my car and extract me. The nice policeman carried me piggy-back across the flooded zone.) What did I do when I realized the seriousness of my situation? I burst out laughing! I was practically doubled over, laughing fit to burst, and couldn’t stop for several minutes, as the water level in the car continued to rise. That experience has made me make a lot of allowances for people’s supposedly bizarre behavior in cases of crimes, disappearances, etc.
I’m not really trying to say I’m any better than anyone else. The “be careful about what you say online” lesson was learned on my part through very bad experience. I look back on stuff I said online during my early to mid adolescence and just cringe. I only wish certain other people who post on the internet would give a thought to what their words might mean to all the others behind the screen.
(No recent event prompted this rant, btw, it’s just something that’s been on my mind.)