Sometimes we cross a line that's insane, that makes no sense. A student at George Rogers Clark High School in Kentucky was arrested recently for making what authorities deemed were "terrorist" threats in the form of stories that had been discovered at his home.
The details of the case are sketchy or at least sparse (you can find a link to an article on it here); it's hard to discern exactly what happened. What seems clear is that 18-year-old William Poole wrote what could only be declared as zombie stories.
I was never one of the picked on kids when I was younger. I was short and mouthy, but I was always something of a rover. I had no group or click that I belonged to; instead I had about one friend in every group. I was neither popular nor unpopular. I was one of those kids who just was. I watched how other groups, how kids interacted with each other, what the pecking orders and hierarchy were. I never much licked the ones who picked on others, and would usually interject myself somehow.
I got into a lot of fights because of this. I caught my fair share of shit. But I was never someone who sat back.
Between the Columbine shootings and September 11 we might just be a little too sensitive, knee jerk, a little too prone to head off offenses at the pass before something, anything, goes wrong. Even if we persecute the wrong kid, as long as we get the crazy little bastard willing to take word to deed, could we be a little too willing to sanitize the playground so that no problems exist?
I knew what it was like to be picked on as a kid, but I never knew what it was like to be the victim. Someone hit me, I hit back. Someone snapped, I snapped. It may not make you Homecoming King, but kids are less prone to initiate if they know you're not going to just sit there.
Still, I knew what it was like to hate the kids who singled me out. There was one in particular, when I was particularly young, who took to waiting for me after school. He was 2 years older than I was, a few inches taller, and many times bigger. He'd chase me and hit me and call me names. For a long time I ran scared, till the day I turned around and tackled him. On the ground I grabbed his nuts and hit him in the face.
He never chased me again.
But I hated him all the same. I would swear there were times I fantasized horrible things happening to him. He might die violently, or be maimed, or die by knifepoint. I didn't care; I just wanted him to hurt as he had hurt me. The truth is, I wished ill on him.
Schools, by their very nature, do a horrible job at protecting the weaker kids. When I was singled out by the Dean of my school for fighting I thought it all just seemed so wrong. I wasn't fighting, I was defending myself.
Kids who can't, or won't, defend themselves have very few options. They turn to their imaginations, to whatever world they can create that gets them out of whatever hell their living in. So they make up stories, they draw pictures, the imagine scenarios where someone, anyone, defends them because no one really seems to.
I don't know if any of this has anything at all to do with William Poole. He may not have been picked on at all. He may have just been writing stories about zombies. He may have just sat in class one day and thought, "Man, this would be a cool story. I like zombies. I like scary movies. I think I'm going to write a story."
It may have just been as simple as that.
When I was a young kid writing anyone could have arrested me for any number of offenses: bad grammar, horribly dialogue, over-dramatization, bad plots, earnest crap, or even random swearing and violent scenarios. Every now and then I wrote stories where people died. They were really bad stories, but anyone who's ever written has done so.
Who knows what William's reasons were for writing a story, but since when did a story ever kill anyone? Since when did a song ever kill anyone? Since when did a movie ever kill anyone? Since when did artistic expression, even poorly executed or aesthetically bad artistic expression ever once kill anyone?
But what do we hurt when we suppress that instinct, that storyteller's instinct, that imaginative impulse, when we react by fear, paranoia, or even just stupidity?
When I was in college a kid was arrested for raping a girl on campus. She never went to the cops, but filed a report against the kid with campus security. I don't know the truth of his situation either, but all you had to do was look at him, or her, during this time to know that even if he didn't rape her, he did something truly horrible to her.
A year after she graduated they gave him a diploma. He was well-to-do, although this may just have been a coincidence, because he was given a second chance.
We've become a scared and terrified country. I'm not going to sit here and wave the First Amendment flag, because that should be so obvious that I just don't have to. But who are we protecting by arresting an 18-year-old kid for writing a work of fiction? And who, ultimately, does this hurt? Because I hope William keeps writing. If he's innocent, and from the most basic facts of the case it appears he is, I hope he writes a story about a nuclear bomb that explodes over the town that put him in jail. It's an allegory, you know?
And I hope, more than anything, that he had a lawyer as good as that kid in college had. I hope he gets the same second chance he did. That kid brutalized a girl, and I bet he's doing alright now. Well, except his conscience. I hope William gets the same chance.
And one day I hope to walk into a Barnes & Nobel in Clark County, Kentucky and purchase his book. Revenge should always be that sweet.