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Why America is Still Fascinated With JonBenet Ramsey

It’s been 20 years since the murder. The media is dredging up the case in a sort of macabre celebration of the milestone anniversary of the tragic event. America remains fascinated with JonBenet Ramsey.

But why? Why this case, and not other unsolved murder or abduction cases? What’s special about this case, and why can’t we let go of it, and even accept that it may never be solved? More curiously, why do so many think they know who did it, as if they were front-row witnesses to the event?

And here’s another question that doesn’t get much analysis: why is it so vitally important that we believe that the murder was carried out by a family member, or by the family itself?

The answers to that last question should make us take a long look in the mirror. It’s not simply that we’re “concerned”. Our fascination with this case says a lot of unsavory things about us as individuals and as a society.

Why the continued fascination with JonBenet Ramsey?

JonBenet was a Pretty, Blonde-haired, Blue-eyed White Girl

Why America is Still Fascinated With JonBenet Ramsey
Why America is Still Fascinated With JonBenet Ramsey

One of the blessings and curses (yes, it’s a full-blown paradox) of being a writer is that you tend to see things differently than most people do. You see what others don’t, or what they prefer not to see. One thing I’ve seen clearly in my lifetime is that we assign value to people based on physical attributes. In case you think I’m making this up, it’s even considered to be a recognized human behavior, referred to as the halo effect, and it’s done on a deeply subconscious level.

At the risk of being politically incorrect, America cares more deeply about the JonBenet Ramsey case because she was a pretty, blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl (though one friend of the family claimed that mother Patsy was bleaching her hair for the pageants). I’m certainly not advocating that position, but rather noting that it has an effect on the level of public interest in this case.  Our culture is nothing if not vain.

The sad reality is that America cares a lot less when a little girl who’s African-American, Latino, Asian or otherwise ethnic-looking, is either murdered or kidnapped. It’s even worse if it’s a boy of any ethnicity.

Somewhere deep in the American soul we consider pretty, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed to carry deeper worth, at least in regard to girls. (This concept goes well beyond this discussion, but I think it’s highly relevant to this case.)

I think this also helps to explain the short-lived fascination with the temporary disappearance of Sherri Papini. Once again, we have a white girl who is pretty, blonde and blue-eyed, and the concern went national in short order. People disappear or are murdered in America every day, but we seem to care more when the victim fits what is perhaps the American cultural ideal of what an American female should look like.

I’m going to speculate that the unspoken fear is: if we can’t protect pretty, blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girls, then who can we protect?

(This observation is first and foremost an indictment of our culture. It’s both sad and sick that our society values  certain people groups/types more than others, but that’s the reality of the world we live in.)

We’re Fascinated With Wealth

By all accounts, the Ramsey family was quite wealthy. According to his bio on Wikipedia, John was the president and CEO of a computer services company, and had a personal wealth in excess of $6 million back in 1996 when JonBenet’s murder took place.

Like pretty, blonde-haired, blue eyed girls, America is also fascinate with wealth. We care a lot more when the people involved in any situation are rich, far more so than if they’re poor or middle class.

But at the same time, we’re disturbed that such a tragedy can befall a rich family. After all, since it’s generally assumed that wealth insulates us from troubles, the fact that a murder happens to a rich family removes another perceived level of security. If an outsider – and not a family member – killed JonBenet, then wealth doesn’t provide the protection that we think it does.

These Things Aren’t Supposed to Happen in Places Like Boulder

Earlier this year we were driving through Newtown, Connecticut. That’s the site of the infamous Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that resulted in the deaths of 26 students and teachers.

Newtown hardly looks like a town where we might imagine such a massacre taking place. It’s a quaint, quiet, prosperous bedroom community located about halfway between New York City and the state capitol of Hartford. Ironically, it’s the exact kind of community that one could imagine moving to in order to escape the very tragedy that took place there.

Boulder, Colorado, where the Ramsey’s lived at the time of JonBenet’s murder, is a lot like Newtown. It’s one of America’s Brigadoons, an almost magical place where the plagues that afflict much of the rest of the country don’t visit. People pay good money to migrate to such places in search of peace, prosperity and eternal safety.

Boulder is home to the University of Colorado. The median household income was $72,009 in 2015, compared with the US median of $55,775. The difference in family income is even greater. For Boulder, median family income was $103,037, compared to the US median of $68,260. Both statistics are especially impressive given that Boulder is a full blown city with a population well over 100,000.

If those statistics don’t make the point, consider that the average price of a house in Boulder is in excess of $1 million.

The point is, scary murders aren’t supposed to happen in places like Boulder. But the JonBenet murder happened there anyway. If we can’t escape murder and mayhem in places like Boulder, where can we run to?

It’s a question that continues to make us most uncomfortable. We want to believe that there are actually safe places in the world, but events like JonBenet’s murder tell us otherwise. Perhaps that’s why we cling to the belief that the crime was perpetrated by a family member, rather than one of the crazed lunatics that are known to wander the streets of communities all over America.

Even “safe places”, like Boulder and Newtown.

The Police Always Get Their Man – But Not This Time

When we watch crime dramas on TV, and especially “reality” crime shows, the police always emerge victorious. Even in the most well concealed crimes, the police crack the case after finding a speck of dust at the crime scene that leads a trail straight to the killer, whose defense is shattered by the overwhelming evidence provided by that speck of dust. Modern science to the rescue!

We turn into bed (these shows are almost always on late at night), secure in the knowledge that the noble Men in Blue always get their man.

But that’s not quite how reality works – and that’s what haunts us. The JonBenet murder case supports the darker outcome – 20 years later and we’ve got nothing. No obvious suspect, no smoking gun, nothing.

It disturbs us that a murder of a child can go unsolved, not the least of which for the implications that outcome imposes on us personally. We’re not as safe as we like to think we are, if a high profile murder case can’t be solved.

To assuage our wounded sense of security, we invent (or ascribe to) theories about the family, and pray that justice is belatedly served.

Somehow, We Think We Know Who Did It

Perhaps we like to think that we’re more sophisticated when we’re “in the know”. Or maybe we consider it to be a sign of our own righteousness when we weigh in on the (presumed) acts of others in some judgmental way, especially when our opinions largely reflect that of the greater society.

Let’s dare to put ourselves for a moment into John Ramsey’s shoes – with the assumption that neither he, nor his wife or son, committed this crime. How would you feel about the media circus this has become???

The reality is that none of us know who killed JonBenet, and neither does the media. How would you feel having lost your daughter – in fact this is the second daughter you’ve lost – and the public – egged on by the media – believes that you, your deceased wife or your son, killed her?

Please think about that long and hard.

If none of the media and public speculation is true, how do you feel? And you’ve had to face that every day of your life for the past 20 years, and will probably have to deal with it for the rest of your life.

Let’s forget about John Ramsey for a moment; what do our assumptions about the JonBenet murder say about us?

Sometimes we participate in evil, even while we think we’re doing good.

Jesus Christ was asked by his disciples when the end of the world would come. The answer he gave was a long one, but this part of it stands out in my mind as I watch millions speculate that they know who killed JonBenet:

“At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” – Matthew 24:10 – 14

Whenever I see or hear people claiming to somehow know who killed JonBenet, I can’t help but reflect on the bolded phrases in this verse, and to realize that we’re taking part in a dangerous game. When we’re pointing fingers at someone in a case where we have nothing but superficial, third-hand knowledge, our “love has gone cold”. Empathy is not in us, only anger.

“They Brought it on Themselves” – the Ultimate Case for the Insider Narrative

Whenever a heinous crime of some sort happens, there’s a human temptation to rationalize that they somehow brought it on themselves. There’s even a psychological theory based on this kind of thinking, known as the just world theory or hypothesis. People want to believe that we live in a world that is just. That means that the good will be rewarded, and the bad will be punished.

I think we all know that this thinking is flawed, at least this side of Heaven. We all know too many situations where bad things happened to good people, and where bad people emerged victorious.

But that’s not a comforting realization. That’s why it’s not unusual for people to begin rationalizing that an unfortunate event is ultimately the fault of the victim.

In the JonBenet murder case, this works out very neatly if the murder was performed by a family member. That means no nasty criminal walking the streets, potentially threatening us. And it further strengthens the belief that such a disaster could not visit our own lives.

I believe that this is a powerful force behind the common belief that JonBenet’s murder was done by a family member. I’m not saying that there isn’t evidence pointing to the family, but more that the entire situation is completely unresolved. We might choose to believe that a family member did it, because we prefer narratives that make us feel most comfortable and secure in our own lives.

We’re Desperate to Prove to Ourselves that it Can’t Happen to Us

Ultimately, I think that all of our speculations about the JonBenet murder, including the various narratives that we choose to believe, all come down to the fact that this case has us coming face-to-face with the reality that – if this crime was committed by a non-family member – there is no sanctuary on the face of the earth. We’re not comfortable with that outcome, and prefer to believe in the insider narrative.

If a pretty, blond haired, blue-eyed little white girl, living in a mansion in an upscale neighborhood, can be murdered in her own home on Christmas night, are any of us safe? Is it possible that wealth and “good” neighborhoods don’t provide the moats that we always thought they did? And if the police really don’t always get their man, what protection do we have?

I think that those reasons – along with the media blitzkrieg – are the real force behind why America is still fascinated with JonBenet Ramsey.

Fascinated may even be the wrong word. Or maybe it would be better to say fearfully fascinated. We’re not simply intrigued about this murder, but more concerned with what it implies for us individually and as a culture. If an outsider did it, then it means that none of us are as safe as we like to think we are.

Are you fascinated with this case? Can you offer any other reasons why people find it so interesting?

( Photo by lwpkommunikacio )

2 Responses to Why America is Still Fascinated With JonBenet Ramsey

  1. I agree with your points above but I also think it is the fact that JonBennet was ‘a beauty queen’ and involved in child pageants that increases the strangeness, hence unhealthy fascination with this case. For many people, myself included, there is something grotesque about dressing little girls up as mini-women, with bleached hair, full on makeup and provocative clothing – even the picture used with this article showing her with ruby red lips/nails and the sultry eye makeup of a grown, sophisticated woman is disturbing and looks like something out of a Hollywood movie about child exploitation. It makes the whole thing even more lurid and freakish which, of course, is catnip to the media…

  2. Hi Suzy – I hadn’t thought about that angle, but I think you’re on to something. I remember when the case hit the media, and that was an issue back then. People were outraged that her mom dressed her up like that, and I think it helped fuel the rumors that Patsy was the killer. I don’t think it made her more culpable, but more that it turned people against her, and that made them want to blame her. What it really was, I think, was the public demand that mom be punished for dressing her six year old so provocatively. It also made people think that the way Patsy painted her up may have drawn a predator to her, making Patsy an accessory.

    “Grotesque” is an excellent word to describe that side of the story line. It certainly applies to how I feel when I see the photos and shows on this story. There’s something inherently disturbing about a child being dressed up in that manner. What’s sad is that this is hardly the only case of moms dressing their young daughters up in this way, even since this tragedy occurred. I’ve heard some moms, when challenged, respond with “that’s the styles these days”. That’s pathetic, and little more than a rationalization!

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