A letter to the editor of this newspaper caught my eye this week. It was written in reaction to a news item that appeared in the Sun Times a few days earlier about an “Amish man” in the U.S. accused of sexting a 12-year-old girl.
For those of us of a certain generation who may not be familiar with that term, it means he allegedly sent her numerous sexually loaded text messages and photos of himself on his cell phone. (Apparently, and surprisingly, they’re in quite common use among the young and business people in the Amish community.) He thought he was communicating with her; but turns out her parents and then the local police in the Indiana community were getting his messages after she alerted her parents. A sting was set up and when he arrived at a pre-arranged location in a horse and buggy for what he anticipated would be a sexual encounter, the police were there and arrested him instead.
“I thought she was 13,” he told police, according to numerous news reports on the Internet. The incident has gone viral, as they say nowadays. The story is being carried by news outlets in every part of the world. And everywhere, including here, the 21-year-old accused has been identified as an “Amish man.”
I found the letter to the editor in the Sun Times earlier this week was very thought provoking, though for reasons the writer probably didn’t intend. “I don’t understand what relevance the man’s religious designation has to the crime,” she said.
The short answer is his religion has everything to do with the fact the story has got such widespread news coverage. It’s the only reason why it has no doubt been read and watched with such interest by millions of people around the world, likely in many different languages. Otherwise, it would have remained a local, or at best regional, story in Indiana.
Is this right, or is it wrong? Depends on your point of view or personal spectrum of interest, I suppose. There are reasons rooted in human nature that account for the fact that Internet website home pages, including my own msn.com, invariably features the romantic and/or sexual adventures of celebrities in news headlines, complete with more or less revealing photos. Sex sells, especially when it’s combined with celebrity.
This may come as a shock and surprise to the Amish, and other exclusive religious sects that seek to separate themselves from the trappings of the modern world, but in so doing they have unwittingly invited that very world to turn them into celebrities. They’re so quaint, you see, so picturesque even, photogenic tourist attractions in their horse and buggies trundling along the side of the highways. No wonder some Amish people, or their like, have apparently chosen to protect their culture and religious integrity from an excess of attention by being less conspicuous, living and looking more like the modern society that surrounds them.
Anyone who chooses to dress in what essentially amounts to a uniform that publicly identifies them as a group governed by a higher or better standard of morality than the rest of us should not be surprised at the negative public attention generated when one or more of their members fail to meet that standard in a flagrant way.
The point applies most obviously to the police and the military. The bad behaviour of some members of the Toronto police service during last year’s G20 summit continues to make news. It’s taken a year, but a crack has finally appeared in “the thin blue line” with the admission by Chief Bill Blair that his officers were “overwhelmed” and had too little time to prepare properly for the protests likely to take place during the summit. He may yet have to resign. Certainly someone, sooner or later, has to be held to account.
The fact Russell Williams was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, and a high-ranking, highly regarded one at that, made his crimes much more newsworthy, and rightfully so. He disgraced the uniform big time.
The day has past when such things are not the stuff of ongoing public inquiry and, yes, news media attention.
To their credit people also have an instinct and interest in hypocrisy. It sells, but for good reason. Public attention, aided and abetted by the news media, provides an essential service that helps society and groups within it, understand and improve their behaviours.
One of the news reports I read about the “Amish man” notes that he will likely be “shunned” by his religious community. But he’s only 21-years-old, and though he allegedly tried to do a terrible thing, his life is not over. The Christian religion preaches forgiveness of sins and redemption. The Amish might want to consider that, despite the discomfort the glaring publicity of this story has caused them.
Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.