Terrorism in Kentucky? [NOPE]

The Census enumerator found dead in Kentucky had his Census Bureau ID duct-taped to his shoulder. It’s very hard to see this as anything but an act of political terrorism.

UPDATE AND RETRACTION False alarm; apparently the guy bought a couple of insurance policies and then killed himself, trying to make it look like murder so his heirs could collect.


After the body of a part-time Census enumerator was found in Eastern Kentucky with the word “FED” written on its chest, there was a little flurry of activity from Blue Blogistan on the theme that the man has been a victim of the violent anti-government rhetoric coming off the hate-radio and hate-TV airwaves and the Tea Parties, with the acquiescence (to say no more) of elected Republicans.

That was a plausible story, but no more than that, and the authorities were being very cautious about what they said, so I refrained from jumping on the bandwagon; the Blue team ought to be careful not to imitate the Red team’s tendency to hysteria around incidents of possible political violence.

But new facts have now emerged that change the picture substantially, making it much more plausible that the Kentucky killing was a continuation of the war waged against local federal officials in the 1990s by the militias, the Posse Comitatus, and the “sagebrush rebels.” (With, I might add, an appallingly weak response from Bill Clinton and Janet Reno.)

AP inteviewed someone who claims to have been the original finder of the body. And his account is full of chilling detail, with the key facts confirmed by two anonymous people with access to official information:

Jerry Weaver of Ohio told the Associated Press he was visiting a cemetery in rural Kentucky with family members on Sept. 12 when he, his wife and daughter saw the body.

“The only thing he had on was a pair of socks,” Weaver said. “And they had duct-taped his hands, his wrists. He had duct tape over his eyes, and they gagged him with a red rag or something.

“He was murdered,” Weaver said. “There’s no doubt.”

Weaver said the body was about 50 yards from a 2003 Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck.

Two people briefed on the investigation said various details of Weaver’s account matched the details of the crime scene, though both people said they were not informed who found the body. The two spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

Authorities have said a preliminary cause of death was asphyxiation, pending a full medical examination. According to a Kentucky State Police statement, the body was hanging from a tree with a rope around the neck, yet it was in contact with the ground.

“And they even had duct tape around his neck,” Weaver said. “And they had like his identification tag on his neck. They had it duct-taped to the side of his neck, on the right side, almost on his right shoulder.”

Both of the people briefed on the investigation confirmed that Sparkman’s Census Bureau ID was found taped to his head and shoulder area.

I can’t think of an interpretation of taping the victim’s Census ID to the body other than as a political statement; if the man had just stumbled across a meth lab, he might have been killed, but hardly in such a dramatic fashion.  Unless and until contrary facts emerge, I’m prepared to call this a terrorist incident, and to say that Glenn Beck* very likely has Bill Sparkman’s blood on his tongue and lips.

Here’s hoping that the President will make a full-throated statement that all the power of the Federal government stands behind each and every Federal employee attacked for doing his job.

*  Update I’m reminded that it was Michelle Bachman, and not Glenn Beck, that tried to make the Census Bureau into a wingnut bogeyman.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

26 thoughts on “Terrorism in Kentucky? [NOPE]”

  1. I can't think of an interpretation of writing "FED" on the mans chest other than a political statement. That or someone trying to mislead investigators into believing the motive is political. Somehow the later scenario seems unlikely.

  2. That or someone trying to mislead investigators into believing the motive is political. Somehow the later scenario seems unlikely.

    Who cares? Let's go ahead and pull a full wingnut: "The mere plausibility of this explanation is itself evidence that the anti-government rhetoric of Glenn Beck, Michelle Bachman, and their ilk is irresponsible." Or for the full wingnut with a half gainer, you can strike "irresponsible" and replace it with "responsible."

  3. Who are you and what have you done with Mark A. R. Kleiman, who once (at his old blog) disagreed utterly with me when I pointed out the danger of incitement? Okay, cheap shot, sorry. Now tell us what must be done with the bloody-lipped Mr. Beck. Tell us for two reasons: (1) what you have already said obliges you to and (2) what you say will doubtless be cogent, trenchant, and amusing.

  4. "Terrorism" may be a bit of a stretch at this point, since the crime was done in the back woods and was not discovered for several days after it happened. Normally, I think of terrorism as an act that takes place in public in a spectacular way, the more spectacular the better. The high visibility of the act is part of why terrorists choose it, and the general public is the audience whose state of mind is intended to be affected by fear into provoking its government to act in a way that furthers the terrorist cause.

    There is no generally agreed upon definition of terrorism, but I think that a couple of criteria should be met before this act would be appropriately labeled as terrorist. If the perpetrator is found to have acted with the intent of provoking a major federal crackdown in a way that draws sympathy to the political cause of the killer, for example, that would make it a terrorist act. Or perhaps it will be shown that the killer intended the act to be a major news story (cover of Time and Newsweek, etc) which would result in the cancellation of the 2010 census. But the low profile of the crime motivates me to look for other labels for the act. If the murderer is shown to have been motivated by the polemics of Beck or Bachmann, that still would make it sound more like an assassination than an act of terror.

    Maybe the language police can shed some light on the best term for this act. But more information is required before an appropriate label can be applied.

  5. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

    ’m prepared to call this a terrorist incident, and to say that Glenn Beck very likely has Bill Sparkman’s blood on his tongue and lips.

    How oddly incongruent.

  6. Note, Beej, that just before the words you quote, he says, "Unless and until contrary facts emerge." If contrary facts emerge, and if he persists in blaming Glenn Beck for the murder, then I will join you in letting him have it with both barrels. What he has actally said does not consitute an act of trying to have his own facts; "prepared to call" is not the same as actually calling, any more than being prepared to render a service is the same as actually serving.

    Let's wait until more facts emerge before we call his words "oddly incongruent."

  7. Ed Whitney, by your own definition of terrorism (an atrocity meant to convey a message), displaying his mutilated body labeled to show he's a federal worker qualifies, even displayed in a quiet spot.

  8. Good point, Warren. Maybe the size of the intended audience is not the essence of the thing; maybe the intend to send a political message is the essence.

    I have been thinking occasionally about the movie, “The Fisher King,” with Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges, in which the Bridges character is a radio shock jock who incites an unbalanced listener to commit an act of mass murder. He is stricken by remorse after the fact and forms a relationship with the Williams character, who becomes homeless and despondent after his wife was killed in the mass murder.

    Last year, a Unitarian church was the scene of a murderous attack by an unbalanced listener of right-wing radio. Michael Savage did not respond the way that Jeff Bridges did in the film. A conscience is required for that to happen. We will still have to wait for more facts to emerge before we can make any judgments about anyone’s conscience or character.

  9. Well, Fred, maybe the writing was done by somebody wanting to keep track of which bound, gagged people had received their meals?

    Ok, maybe not.

    I'm also struck by the tension between the outlandish way the body was "decorated" (desecrated?) and the description of the location as remote. Perhaps the perpetrator and the reporter would have different ideas of what kind of a site is remote?

  10. Whatever the motive of the killer(s) this act will certainly have the result of terrorizing Census workers."Don't tread on me" indeed. The extra few bucks the gig brings in might start to look like a paltry pitance against the risk (however small) of meeting such an ignobel fate.

    If the Census is hampered in this and similar regeons I wonder what effect it will have in practice. If the area is undercounted won't that reduce federal funding for roads, schools, police…? How about Congressional representation? The rural south is more dependent on federal funds than the more prosperous north east and west coast. Throwing a monkey wrench into the machine that delivers your support isn't exactly smart.

    And please let's not joke about this. My heart goes out to this man's family and friends. What a stupid and cowardly thing to be done by people operating under the delusion that they are patriots.

  11. Being from the deep south, this incident brings forth the images of lynching from earlier in the civil rights movement. Bodies hanging from trees and desecrated. To me, it shows the real depth of hatred and ignorance which runs deeply through the back woods in many states, not all necessarily in the south. The people who perpetuate crimes like this are dangerous to society and to their own families. Their offspring are being raised to uphold the same (im)morality. The children are helpless and often victimized by these types of adults. We have a lot of people in prison today that were raised by this type of 'role model'. I don't know how we as a culture will be able to penetrate these 'hills' with any positive outcome. Certainly there is a contingent which is swayed by these sensationalist journalists but in actuality, I believe this goes deeper, to the bone in some areas and the media has a relatively small influence. The people of these backwoods are distrusting of authority for many reasons and historically it can be tracked throughout prohibition and the coal industry. Even today, the coal industry has poisoned the waters and the state governments refuse to impose restrictions on their industrial wastes. Why are we surprised at this type of reaction with this poor man getting caught in the middle? I do believe this incident is a political statement however, not with the depth of forethought implied by the media. More like a desperate attempt by people that feel helpless and trapped to show that they are exhausted and want to be left alone.

  12. There was an interview with a friend of Bill Sparkman's — a police officer — in which the officer had warned him how dangerous the job could be, and to be careful if he took it at all. (I didn't bookmark it and am quoting from memory.) Apparently Sparkman may have been the sort who took the job because it needed doing, not just for the 'few bucks.' Which, of course, only heightens the tragedy.

  13. shine said: "Being from the deep south, this incident brings forth the images of lynching from earlier in the civil rights movement. Bodies hanging from trees and desecrated. To me, it shows the real depth of hatred and ignorance which runs deeply through the back woods in many states, not all necessarily in the south. The people who perpetuate crimes like this are dangerous to society and to their own families."

    Careful…your prejudice against southerns is showing, you bigot. Listen to how stupid you sound: "…it shows the real depth of hatred and ignorance…people who perpetuate crimes like this are dangerous to society…"

    Never occurred to you that BIG CITIES in the NORTH have far greater murder rates even when adjusted for the population, I suppose…or that many big city crimes are just as gruesome.

    But hey, why look at things fairly and logically when you are a spiteful troll willing to exploit a death to bash "backwoods" people?

  14. Shorter ynot4tony2:

    The rural South may have a tradition of Terrorism stretching back more than a century, but there is a lot of crime among the urban poor, which is an indistinguishable phenomenon.

  15. Warren, isn't it normal when pulling the "shorter" rhetorical move, to change the text to something that doesn't make sense?

  16. Brett, if, as I allege about ynot4tony2, you cannot tell the difference between my two statements, and think equating them "makes sense", then I'm very sorry for you.

  17. If you say that this is a terrorist incident then that means that Obama has failed to keep us safe from terrorists.

  18. Warren Terra: Thank you.

    From a Southern Native and recent resident of Kentucky, where ignorance and bigotry of the sort that could have led to this atrocity is not unknown. And is in fact frequently celebrated in the eastern half of the alleged Commonwealth.

  19. in reference to ynot4tony2's commentary, i am an american citizen, born in the south and i recognize bigotry and call it by its name in an effort to drive it into oblivion someday…unrealistic maybe but one must face ones demons in order to control them…racism is not just in the deep south and neither is violent, horrific crime…it is what it is and calling it out is what must be done. your comment shows your lack of comprehension of the real issues here. President Carter called out on the race issue out loud last week and I for one, heard the truth and strength of his statement. He said what most people will not admit. Bring these issues out into the light and the people will make their own assessment of their merit. Right or wrong.

  20. Warren, do you really think the ultra-high levels of violent crime achieved in some inner city neighborhoods don't terrorize the people who live there? Or that gangs don't intend to terrorize people? Any two things which aren't perfectly identical can, trivially, be distinguished, but that doesn't imply they meaningfully differ.

    So there's a guy in Kentucky who's killed a census worker. Does that make working for the census in Kentucky more dangerous than working for the census in the wrong neighborhood in Detroit?

  21. Brett, it would appear that a census worker was killed because he's a census worker, amid a lot of paranoid fearmongering about the federal government. The largely undirected criminality among the urban poor is really not the same thing, as it lacks intent and is not furthering any particular message, especially not a political message. If you were to restrict yourself to the "stop snitching" trend that got a lot of press attention and included at least one genuine atrocity in Baltimore a couple of years ago, you'd have more of a point. But I don't know how widespread or effective the "stop snitching" movement was.

  22. Ok, got it, you think the important thing is that it was done for political reasons, I think the important thing is that the dude was killed. We just have different priorities.

  23. Brett, if the 'dude' had been killed in a similar manner with arabic script scrawled on his chest would you see that as different?

    The obvious intent of this murder was to impede the functioning of the federal government by terrorizing its (our) employees. Whether that is done by a foriegn or domestic group or individual it is quite different in nature and effect from random criminal violence. A census worker getting killed in the course of a random robbery may elicit fear in coworkers, but most would put in the context of risks they take in daily life. That is quite different from knowig that they are targeted because of their job.

  24. Brett, if what matter is that "dudes are killed," then I assume that you don't regard 9/11 as an especially important event; after all, there were fewer total murders in the U.S. that year, counting the 9/11 deaths, than there had been five years earlier.

    Of course the political context matters; when an American is killed because he's doing a job for the Federal government, and his body displayed in a way designed to threaten other people who might do so, that's a threat to the country, not just a loss to his family.

  25. Hm, perhaps I think ultra-high crime rates in our inner cities are ALSO an especially important, albeit ongoing, event. And, yeah, I think we over-reacted at least a little to 9-11.

    "when an American is killed because he’s doing a job for the Federal government, and his body displayed in a way designed to threaten other people who might do so, that’s a threat to the country, not just a loss to his family."

    Leaving aside the question of whether you're improperly conflating government and country, doesn't a threat to private citizens constitute a threat to the country? After all, the country is mostly made up of private citizens.

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