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Why Didn’t We Care Much That a Boy Was Held in a Bunker For 7 Days?

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Slade Sohmer

By Slade Sohmer on February 5, 2013

What is it about some stories that capture our collective imagination, that rule the front pages, the Internet, social networks and cable news simultaneously? What made Casey Anthony’s story more special than other shitty moms or sadder than all the other murdered children? Why does Octomom get ink but a struggling mother of only septuplets warrants only a shrug?

It’s not that the media ignored what was happening in southeast Alabama this past week. It’s that America, largely, didn’t much care that a Vietnam vet survivalist boarded a bus, shot and killed the driver and absconded with a five-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, who was then held in an underground 8′ x 6′ stocked bunker for seven days. How did this not warrant 24/7 coverage? We’ve cared more deeply about a girl who fell in a well before. This poor kid was a prisoner.

The ordeal, frightening at every turn, ended on Monday. Five-year-old Ethan will spend his sixth birthday, on Wednesday, reunited with his family.

What was missing here?

The traditional national news media covered the story. Every day authorities provided updates. Yet this never rose to the level one might expect for an unfolding tragedy with all the elements of “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Why didn’t this one reel us in? Was it simply Super Bowl week? Did we write it off as “The South?” If this were Long Island or Southern California, would we have cared more? Did we just feel too helpless, like there was nothing that we could possibly do? Were we scared we’d tune in at the exact second they told us the boy was dead, or sexually abused, or beaten, or eaten? Was it simply boring, all the “action” having taken place before most of us were aware of it?

Or, and this may be it, was Jimmy Lee Dykes just too crazy for a real-life villain, two steps over the acceptable level of derangement we require?

Jimmy Lee Dykes
Jimmy Lee Dykes, AP Photo/Alabama Department of Public Safety

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We even had a textbook hero: The bus driver, Charles Albert Poland Jr., died protecting the 21 children he was carrying. When Dykes boarded the bus and demanded Poland hand over two children, Poland stood up and blocked Dykes’ path. He was gunned down going above and beyond his call of duty.

This horrific story had all the elements: A hero, since celebrated at home, largely anonymous to the nation. A little boy with developmental disabilities in the wrong place and time. A kidnapper with a long, bad history. A hand-built underground bunker. Negotiators stymied by physical barriers.

And, yet, we passed. Why do you think that is?

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