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Lessons Learned
Generous Servings of
Corvus Brachyrhynchos, Humble Pie

by Conrad F. Goeringer
June 4, 2020

Learning is not child’s play;
we cannot learn without pain.

-- Aristotle: Politics V.v.

Fire up the Grill Master! Grab the bar-b-que sauce, put on the apron, and prepare multiple servings of Corvus Brachyrhynchos!

We’re serving crow on the menu today, folks.

With a verdict now declared in the kidnapping and extortion trial of Gary Karr, we may be closer to understanding the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the Murray O’Hair family in the fall of 1995. If the prosecution is correct, Madalyn O’Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray and daughter Robin Murray were abducted, robbed of personal money and $500,000 in gold coins, and later murdered, dismembered, and their bodies buried in the Texas desert. It is a grisly scenario; and even with a conviction on four of five counts in the Karr trial, there is still not a full resolution of this case.

Perhaps in the future...

We know more now about the circumstances in this case than we did in the weeks and months immediately following the disappearance. There was precious little evidence at that time to suggest what might have actually happened. There were no indications of foul play, at least in the offices and private home of the O’Hair family. Contributing to the mystery were the subsequent revelations about Jon Murray’s automobile being sold under unusual circumstances, and that Robin Murray’s car was found in a long-term parking lot near the Austin, Texas airport. What else could more literally, and figuratively, suggest flight?

Then came the news that Jon Murray had traveled to New Jersey, transferred money out of a bank account in New Zealand belonging to a secularist group, and apparently used the funds to purchase $500,000 in gold coins. John MacDonald or Robert Parker would be hard pressed to write a more puzzling and intriguing plot for one of their sleuth novels. So much about the Murray O’Hair case made so little sense.

That fact did not discourage a cottage industry of speculation in popular media, the internet, and, alas, even from publications, groups and individuals who may have disliked the O’Hairs personally, but certainly at one time shared many of their ideals. Media also did its share of target shooting as well. It’s likely that most of the reporters and editors covering the story were not the eminence-grise news hounds you see portrayed in old black-and-white movies, or read about in histories of journalism. Many writers covering the disappearance mystery were probably not even born when Madalyn Murray fought the MURRAY v. CURLETT suit, and helped to banish mandatory prayer and Bible verse recitation from the public school classrooms. They were likely young, generation-X types, perhaps even fresh from the training stables of the few journalism schools remaining in scattered universities across the country. “Madalyn who...?” For them, covering this story was like pounding out bullets of copy about any other, and in lieu of writing something about the O.J. trial, or perhaps the Jon Benet Ramsey case, well, the mystery of the missing atheists (and their loot) would have to do.

There are lessons to be appreciated from all of this, and I share them with you. Some of what I learned, as an observer, writer, and even witness in the case, was simply a refresher course in those realities of life you experience and hopefully absorb with time. Others were a bit of an eye-opener. Few people, fortunately, will ever have a close friend or relative perish as the result of violence. We know that murder and mayhem claim more than just the deceased as victim, that friends and family often suffer after the blood has been washed away, the corpses (if found) buried, and the machinations of the juridical system completed. Not everyone who covered or wrote about the O’Hair disappearance is guilty of these transgressions. Courtesy requires that names not be mentioned, perhaps even with a future eye to some kind of closure and reconciliation. From all of this, then -- from five years of wondering about the fate of the O’Hairs-- and for what it may be worth ...

... everyone feels compelled -- and authorized -- to both have an opinion and voice it, often with little familiarity with the facts.
• Be skeptical of accounts you read or hear, especially in the popular media.

Our “free press” is certainly preferable to a government-regulated Ministry of Truth that is the hallmark of totalitarian societies, and the state certainly has no business vetting newspapers, television programs or other media for its stamp fo official “accuracy.” Even so, any number of factors can contribute to a story being biased or inaccurate. Journalists are fallible, and despite the most noble of intentions they can often bring to their work a degree of prejudice, or just plain sloppy investigation. A news reporter is often working against a deadline, with very limited facts. Even a good story can be amputated by editors and attorney. The trek from word processor to final airing, be it in print or on television, the internet or some other medium, is a long, precarious one. Articles can get massaged, edited, changed, butchered and re-written in the process.

The whole tone or direction of any article can vary dramatically depending on who happens to be interviewed, which sources are used, and a slew of other intervening factors. As anyone who has been interviewed for a story knows, all or most of what you say rarely is included, and what does find its way to print can often be taken out of context. What you read or hear may not be the full, complete story...

• The news media does not always correct its mistakes...

I’m thinking of one story in particular, an account of the Murray O’Hair disappearance that appeared in a trendy magazine lavishly illustrated with uncomplimentary photos and an abundance of copy that was equally critical. At the end appears an “Elvis-style” claim of a sighting placing Madalyn O’Hair in New Zealand where she was ostensibly seen at a bank (think: “purloined funds”) and a Mexican restaurant (think: “gorging on food”). That seemed a bit unlikely at the time of the article perhaps, and is even less likely now. One doubts, though, if there will be an apology, retraction or correction now or in the future. Worse yet is the prospect that the writer is roaming free to do a similar hatchet job to someone else.

Another example comes to mind, this one involving a low-level bottom feeder of internet journalism, who after the disappearance and the revelation of missing funds established himself/herself as judge, jury and executioner, pronouncing the O’Hairs guilty as charged. This individual boasted that he/she was blessed with the unusual analytic gift of making the correct judgment in a situation based on a minimum of necessary evidence -- quite an achievement, in light of the fact that even the legal system demands a “preponderance” of facts. One doubts if there will be a retraction here, either.

• We are often less skeptical concerning critical claims about someone if we happen to dislike them...

Not everyone, including atheists, had a flattering opinion of the Murray O’Hairs. People had confrontations with members of the family, disagreed on their style of leadership, even considered them to be a liability for the atheist movement. Some of these criticisms may well have been justified; but does that, in turn, make the O’Hairs a consanguineous gang of thieves who would spend much of their lives working for a set of idealistic goals, then resort to the skullduggery of acting like Wall Street embezzlers and taking the money due South?

Judgments concerning what people are capable of, or what they might have done are often filtered through an emotional lens. It is easy to consider people we have a strong dislike for as capable of nearly any evil deed. Similarly, those who we happen to like can do no wrong at any time. This is an all-too-human trait. It colors the way we judge people’s actions, and often influences how quick we are to pronounce judgment one way or another without good facts. We may not be able to totally escape these biases, but we should at least be aware of them.

• In the postmodern world, everyone feels compelled -- and authorized -- to both have an opinion and voice it, often with little familiarity with the facts.

We live in an era of focus groups, instant poll and opinion surveys. Hardly any major news story is not accompanied by a sidebar asking how we “feel” about a particular subject. We may express support for military intervention in a distant land we are unable to locate on a map, or opine that yes, Patsy Ramsey is guilty as sin. Having an opinion even if it is based on the most casual acquaintance with a particular subjection is de rigeur, while those who happen to fall into the “don’t know” or “no opinion” category are unwelcome slackers avoid the lively public discussion.

What struck me about the O’Hair disappearance was how many people, especially in various internet news groups and e-mail lists seemed compelled to “sound off,” and have their opinion broadcast far and wide -- often with little or no supporting evidence to validate their statements. This may be the downside of much-hyped “net culture,” or perhaps it simply underscores the fact that the world has become more hospitable to any bully with a keyboard. Web sites and the rest of the internet can lead to popular empowerment, where everyone and anyone can take a stand, and with a bit of savvy actually manage to reach a respectable audience. Some suggest, though, that we have taken the plunge from the days of Edward R. Morrow to the brave new world of Matt Drudge. Is fairness and accuracy the price paid?

My sense is that many people involved in “flame wars” and other digital outbursts, whether the topic is the Murray O’Hairs or some other subject, are just that -- bullies behind a keyboard. It is relatively safe to lurk behind the anonymity of a screen name. I doubt that many flamers and ascii shock jocks would have the fortitude to stand up in the more personal, face-to-face world of a town meeting or similar venue, and say the same things they try to spread throughout cyberspace. This doesn’t mean that their claims are automatically wrong, or their facts are incorrect. It does suggest, though, that people are apt to hit the SEND button first, and check facts much later, if at all.

• An unusual, tragic event bring strange creatures out of the social woodwork.

To the point: some people get really weird. I could dredge up a cornucopia of examples, but perhaps a couple will do.

The O’Hair case had all of the elements of a good mystery, including the aura of celebrity. Some people wanted to become actors in a media, and later the judicial drama that unfolded. Reporters know this of course; any Journalism 101 newbie learns the tricks of getting potential news informants to talk, almost with the skill of a trained crime investigator. They also know that most people love to be in front of the camera, flattered, or see their name in print, especially in connection with a dramatic event. (What else besides money could lure people onto those cheesy television programs, anyway?) Merely talking to a reporter, for some, transports them closer to the action, and the center of events. They are “in the know,” basking in the glow of a world of exciting and privileged insiders. As any reporter knows, asking people what they know, or what they think they know, lubricates a tongue as quickly as a couple of shots of good bourbon.

So, all sorts of people felt compelled to step into the limelight of the O’Hair case and contribute their one or two cents of input. It didn’t matter if they hated or loved the O’Hairs, or had much knowledge about what might have happened. Andy Warhol was partially right in suggesting that everyone achieves his or her 15-minutes of fame. Ironically, this came at the expense of the O’Hairs, who since 1995 have not been around to defend themselves.

• As new information emerged, those with a predisposed opinion in the case selectively filtered this to support their own biases and theories...

Theories should be based on facts, and facts should not be constrained, twisted, molded and selectively distorted to support biased assumptions. Incredibly, there are people out there who still believe that the earth is flat, that human beings and dinosaurs existed contemporaneously, or who embrace any number of other claims without sufficient evidence. Draping one’s self in the mantle of being an atheist, freethinker, rationalist, humanist, or skeptic does not magically render any of us immune to the tendency to emphasize some facts while conveniently ignoring others. We become emotionally bonded to our theories, more so if they involve persons we love or hate.

Beginning with the disappearance of the Murray O’Hairs in the fall of 1995, I was struck by how so many people -- friends and critics of the missing three -- were determined to construct an “explanation” of what might have happened, at any cost to the integrity of the available facts, the reputation and life’s work of the O’Hairs, and their own future standing.

Everyone insisted on having an opinion, and voicing it.

It did not seem to matter that the three people being so exquisitely dissected under the media microscope were absent and unable to defend themselves. The decency that one might hope for, that people would at least try to suspend judgment until more information was available, was in short supply. Gossip, whether in print or on web page, is still gossip.

All of this rush to judgement was very similar to religious thinking. It involved deliberately ignoring or obfuscating some facts in order to advance a pet theory, or forcing a premature explanation when few facts are available.

So, with the O’Hair case appearing to head for some kind of final resolution -- even now, that is not certain -- one item well stocked on some people’s menu should be a generous portion of crow, Corvus Brachyrhynchos. May I suggest for those ordering it a side dish of Humble Pie as well? Perhap served cold...

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