Four college students in Idaho were stabbed to death on Nov. 13,2022. Two of them were 20 years old and two were 21. Three of them were young women, and one was a young man. All four were white. None of the victims was raped or robbed. A suspect has been arrested, and details of the case against him may be released over the next few weeks.
This above format is typical of crime reports published in major American cities. This summary of the events in Moscow, Idaho, lacks the emotional impact that has warranted daily news briefings across the country in connection with these murders. In a country with thousands of murders annually, these killings got considerably more attention than that routinely accorded to violent crimes. There were several obvious reasons for this unusual level of interest.
I suspect many Americans were surprised that these people were killed in Idaho, a state known more for its extensive wilderness than for its crime rate. Murder rates in Idaho over recent years have been relatively modest compared to those recorded for other states, especially in the southeast. Homicides in Idaho have been running annually at just over 2 victims per 100,000 state residents. This is in stark contrast to murder rates in Louisiana, which have topped 19 annually per 100,000 residents and those in Mississippi, which have exceeded 20 per 100,000 residents in some recent years. For those concerned with their personal safety, Vermont and New Hampshire are the best states in which to live.
Many of us saw these young adults as too similar to our own children or family members to be dismissed as mere statistics. The absence of any possible justification for the murders, such as a drug deal gone bad or a lover’s quarrel, was also unsettling. None of the victims was a troubled youth, an inner city ghetto resident, an illegal immigrant, a homeless person, a law enforcement officer, etc. Simply put, none of the murder victims fit the American stereotype of a typical victim of a senseless crime.
America demanded an explanation for this incident. A perpetrator needed to be identified, apprehended, arrested, indicted, tried, and punished as quickly as possible. While our anxiety peaked in connection with this heinous crime, America experienced several thousand additional murders over the next month that went unmentioned in mainstream media. Many of these additional murders would go unsolved or unpunished, but this would not elicit the anxiety that the Idaho college murders evoked. The deaths of those four young adults, stabbed while asleep in their beds, made the headlines and the national news every day after the crime had been discovered. The media fed our demand for daily updates with numerous sound-bites devoid of information.
A suspect was arrested after weeks of speculation, and America felt safer. The only real fear to overcome after that development was that the man arrested might not be the guilty party. We were exhausted. We had been attacked in our slumber. The thousands of other murders in our cities and towns were background noise that we had learned to sleep through. These four murders jarred us awake. We could not relax until these cases were solved. We needed “closure.”
We had a similar experience in the 1960s and 70s when the Vietnam war droned on. Hundreds of thousands of young men were sent to fight in a war the government assured us was important to our national interests. There was talk of communism spreading from one southeast Asian country to another like a flu epidemic. More than 50,000 Americans were killed in that conflict and more than 100,000 were left with disabilities. Despite the daily casualty reports and erratic protests by “trouble makers,” America was unmoved by this sacrifice of its youth until May 4, 1970. On that day, National Guard troops sent to Kent State University in Ohio shot and killed four students protesting the war in Vietnam. It was as if we had been attacked in our sleep and four of our children had been murdered by the people we least expected to harm them. No one was arrested, tried, or otherwise punished for the Kent State murders, but we could no longer tolerate the status quo. We needed to exit the war before more of our children died at home or in the jungles and cities of southeast Asia.
With every high-profile murder, we try to identify something that put the victims at risk. We want to know if there is something they did that we should avoid. Were there warning signs that they ignored? Were they too trusting? Current information suggests these four young people were the random targets of a man intent upon committing a perfect crime. Unfortunately, if the authorities have the actual killer and his motivation was as suggested by information released to date, he is not the first to wander down this awful path and undoubtedly will not be the last.
In the 1920s, America was shocked by the inexplicable murder of Bobby Frank, a 14-year-old boy who was abducted and killed by two wealthy, well-educated young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. The murderers confessed to hoping to commit an unsolvable, motiveless crime. Their target was picked at random. The criminals were identified on the basis of evidence (a pair of glasses) they left behind unintentionally. Leopold and Loeb saw the murder of this child as a demonstration of their genius. Society viewed it as a case of simple depravity. They were convicted but spared the death penalty through the efforts of their lawyer, the legendary Clarence Darrow.
The punishment for these heinous crimes, whether it be imprisonment or execution, appears to be of little concern to the perpetrators. Many will literally get away with murder. The real danger to society is that it will become indifferent or desensitized to these crimes because they are so numerous and so emotionally crippling. That we are periodically startled by the senseless butchery suffered by our most innocent citizens is reassuring. Our pre-occupation with the murders in Idaho is evidence that we still care about the safety of our fellow Americans. We may be exhausted by the persistence of monsters in our midst, but we are certainly not indifferent.