Thoughts on cruelty, dead children, and Seth Rich

There is a great deal of cruelty in the world.

I write this on an exuberant midspring day. The flowering trees are at peak pink-and-white beauty, there are still occasional splashes of holdout bright yellow forsythias, the tulips are a Pantone display, and the trees bloom with tender baby almost florescent green little leaves. Very soon it will turn overwhelmingly green, and the light will gild it to some wild only-in-nature color. So yes, there is much beauty in the world.

But also there is cruelty. Red-in-tooth-and-claw stuff, yes, of course, but also gratuitous, human-made, jaw-dropping, purposeful cruelty.

Try to imagine, if you have the stomach for it, that your child has died.

I can assure you that unless you have experienced that nightmare, you cannot imagine the feeling. You cannot imagine the depth and blackness and soul-deadening silence of that feeling, and if you think you can, you’re wrong, and you’re lucky.

Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that somehow you can imagine it.

Then imagine that someone tells you that your child is not really dead; in fact, you never really had that child in the first place. It’s all made up. Or imagine that someone says that yes, your child is dead, but he had been a sneak, a spy, and a liar, killed by the creeps he’d entangled his no-good self with.

And then imagine those stories magnified and amplified by social media and the conspiracy theorists who lurk and howl there.

Sounds ridiculous, right?

But it seems to be a new thing.

Think of Alex Jones of Info Wars, who has made a fortune selling nutritional supplements and conspiracy theories. He told his followers that the kindergarteners slaughtered at Sandy Hook were not dead. Had never lived. Had not been born. Had not been shot and killed. And some of his crazier followers not only believed him but felt it necessary to act on that knowledge. So parents of some of those little dead kids were stalked and harassed by people demanding birth certificates and death certificates, calling them names, spitting at them, threatening violence.

Or turn your attention to the Mueller report.

One of the least savory stories in the compilation of jaw-dropping stories is the one about Seth Rich.

Remember him? He was a young Jewish staffer who worked for the Democratic National Committee; he was from Nebraska, came from a loving family, was young, smart, and enthusiastic, and was discovered dead on the street near his Washington, D.C., home in the summer of 2016. He was killed in the middle of the night. His murder wasn’t ever solved, but the police said that they thought it was likely to have been a mugging done terribly wrong.

Some right-wing political influencers, though — chief among them Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Newt Gingrich — thought otherwise. They went after Mr. Rich as the person most likely to have given the Democratic Party’s hacked emails to Wikileaks. The timing made it possible; everything else that everyone knew about Seth made it impossible.

The accusations gutted his parents, who had to deal not only with their son’s murder but also with the accusations aimed at him; he was dead and couldn’t defend himself, and they were alive but barely, hobbled with grief.

In a little corner of the Mueller report, though, we can read this:

“WikiLeaks and Assange made several public statements apparently designed to obscure the source of the materials that WikiLeaks was releasing.” Assange went after Rich, because his dead body was there; he “implied falsely that he had been the source of the stolen DNC emails,” Mueller wrote.

He wasn’t.

It was important to Assange that it not seem as if Wikileaks knew anything about the source of the material that it obtained and dumped online. That’s bad — but that’s Assange. But to do that to the parents of a dead son is the kind of casual cruelty that seems endemic in public life these days. It’s small scale; one family, one dead kid, one set of bereaved parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, and close friends. So what, right?

But each one of us is the whole world. Each one of us counts. We each matter. Cruelty matters. Not exploiting people in grief matters.

I am extremely grateful to Robert Mueller for proving that Seth Rich was not guilty. That does not bring him back to life, but at least it allows his parents to grieve him properly, and maybe, some springtime, maybe not this springtime, at least look outside and see the light.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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