Fear in a Small Town

Update, August 22, 2018: Police found Mollie’s body in a corn field yesterday. They have someone in custody, and he has reportedly confessed. At this moment, he is appearing in court in Poweshiek County.

My mother told me not to travel alone this week. “I read that 30 people have gone missing in Iowa in the last ten days,” she said, to which I stupidly replied: “Actually, the number the article gave was 48. Forty-eight missing in the last ten – I mean, that’s normal, though. That’s the normal number.”

I admit that last part isn’t quite true. Last year, the average number of missing juveniles (that is, under 18) was 12-per-day. So 48 isn’t normal. It’s actually significantly lower than average. After all, it’s common for someone to be reported missing only to be found hours later. Also, it’s not uncommon for the same kid to run away repeatedly, thus making the list multiple times. So why is everyone talking about the supposed rash of abductions across Iowa?

I get why my mom would freak out. This is the same woman tried to talk me out of attending graduate school because she was convinced I would die. “People get shot there [in Chicago] all the time,” she said. “Public transit is dangerous,” she said. “And what if you get sick?”

In other words, this is someone who fully expects me to pick up the first masked hitchhiker I see holding a bloody machete and a human head.

Unfortunately, her panic-now-question-later approach isn’t as rare as I’d like to believe. For weeks, “news” media has promoted the idea that there is an epidemic of baby-snatchers and criminal perverts roaming the Midwestern countryside. It’s a phenomenon based solely on wild speculation and conjecture, and it’s all because we can’t find Mollie Tibbetts.

Mollie’s disappearance is by no means trivial. She’s young, well-loved, and has a promising future. It’s also highly unlikely she’s going to return home alive. With every day that passes, her chances of survival decrease exponentially. No matter how this plays out – whether she’s found or not – her vanishing is already a tragedy.

Reading interviews from her family members and friends, disgust compounds empathy as their worries and lamentations are presented as titillating details in a narrative the likes of FOXNews and MSNBC tease out on an hourly basis. These same organizations pair their heavy-handed pathos with misleading numbers as forms of logos, but these statistics only beg the question: what about all of these other missings?

In 2017 – the same year that saw over 4,000 missing minors – there were 74 reports of human trafficking. Most victims were sex slaves. This number actually seems low to me, especially considering I-80’s status as a major artery connecting travelers from O’Hare International Airport to points west of the Mississippi River (i.e., 2/3 of the country).

The more I think about it, in fact, the more likely it seems that thousands of humans are trafficked through Iowa annually without incident. That’s at least as alarming as a pretty 20-year-old college student vanishing without a trace.

But those trafficked humans are invisible to us. Many of them are from other countries, lured to the United States with promises of a bright future only to find themselves at the mercy of hostile forces. These victims are in a foreign country with no friends, possibly not speaking the dominant languages or knowing the laws.

I’ve noticed a distinct lack of sympathy for their ignorance. Interestingly, the least sympathetic people are usually the ones most likely to end up in a similar situation. (Like, I know you went to Switzerland last year, and you still think their dominant language is “Swiss.”)

What this tells us is that our fixation on Mollie is not due to our identification with her. If that was true, FOXNews would have more headlines like, “Studies Show Grandchildren Don’t Call Enough,” and “Fact: Popular Music These Days is Just Noise.”

Instead, we identify Mollie as belonging to us. This may be why journalists feel entitled to sensationalize her story with clickbait headlines and red herring narratives.

The idea of white* women as objects – even status symbols – is nothing new, though its often misunderstood as originating in communities of color. Really, the concept has its deepest roots in white/West European culture. Other cultures objectify their women in a similar manner, seeing the women of their group as belonging to them. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, brown, yellow, black, etc. As a woman, you “belong” to whatever race (or religion or ethnic group) you were born into.

Mollie’s father recently said, “…what’s happened to Mollie has struck people deep in some fearful place…”

He’s referring to how people in their small town of Brooklyn, Iowa seem to hold their children closer, no longer allowing them to walk to a friend’s house or play in the park on their own.

This is a perfectly reasonable reaction to a tragedy in a small town, where people are unused to dealing with random abductions. But this small-town fear is just that. It’s a natural reaction to unfamiliar and frightening circumstances.

So why has Mollie’s disappearance prompted so much nationwide attention on missing juveniles when she herself is an adult? For the same reasons news outlets have published more about her than they did about the 1500 migrant children who still haven’t been found: she belongs to us. Like our own children, she’s ours.

Only she’s not. Mollie has her own life with her own plans. She expects to go to graduate school. She wants to work with troubled children (like the thousands of foster kids who have been lost and abandoned by federal agencies about whom no one seems to care), helping them at a time when they are some of society’s most vulnerable individuals. It sounds like she’s planning to marry her current boyfriend – the same guy who can’t sleep these days because he’s lying awake wondering where the hell she is and what’s happening to her.

And that’s just a fraction of the poor guy’s problems, by the way. For one thing, some people are convinced he’s involved in her disappearance despite having an airtight alibi. But what’s really going to eat away at him over the long term is guilt.

He feels guilt not because he did anything wrong but due to yet another side-effect of the cultural ideology about white women: white men are supposed to protect them. Whether he’s aware of it or not, Mollie’s boyfriend has absorbed this message from birth. So has her father.

Sorry, I went off on a bit of a tangent there. I guess I’m trying to reinforce the idea that while Mollie herself is not ours, her story is. What’s happened to her effects all of us.

We should feel the same way about anyone who has been abducted and/or exploited. Twelve-year-old Ma Jingjing, for example, went missing from a D.C. airport while on a visit from China. Fortunately, due to fast-acting law enforcement and surveillance footage that went viral, she was located a little over a day later in New York City. If she hadn’t been found within 48 hours, it’s statistically unlikely that she would have been seen alive again.

Jingjing is lucky. Her youth and status as a sight-seeing student contributed to interest in her story. She’s not an immigrant – she’s a visitor. A guest. How shitty would you feel if you hosted a party and someone got locked in your linen closet?

But Jingjing is the exception to the rule. Hopefully, Mollie is, too, as she deserves to get home safely.

I am going to travel this week, and I’m not going to be afraid. I will, however, be aware – of what’s going on around me and not of what news media tells me I should focus on. Bad things can happen anywhere and to anyone. All lives really do matter – even the ones that don’t look pretty or glamorous. Don’t let divisive rhetoric blind us to danger and who is at risk. And don’t let cultural brainwashing make us think we only have an obligation to protect “our own.” That’s not what Mollie would do, and if we really care about her as much as mainstream media thinks we do, we should honor her wishes.

Plus, today you, tomorrow me.

Finally, a message to whoever has Mollie: it is in your best interest to let her go before we find you.

*I singled out white women here because they are so disproportionately revered in dominant American culture that the tendency to dote on them has leaked into an alarming number of alternative and sub- cultures. In the interest of full disclosure, I have used this tendency to personal advantage with the awareness that it has a negative impact on society. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it forever: few of us are clean.