If Elizabeth Smart didn’t exist, the prestige media would have been well-advised to invent her. Her kidnapping occupied the media through the long summer months of 2002, just the sort of lurid spectacle needed to distract Americans from the stock market’s swoon and the deepening public realization that nothing major was planned to combat corporate malfeasance. A nation came to cherish Amber Alerts as it was turned against unremarkable figures like Richard Ricci and Bret Michael Edmunds; sorry men by most accounts, convicted of a crime it turned out they didn’t commit after all, mocked as their health deteriorated as a result of what essentially was media persecution.
Innocent after all. The lingering shots of the Smart girl’s icy stare are all over cable again, on what Fox news calls a “glorious day for the American people”. Once again, Elizabeth Smart has materialized from the ether. Nine months after her disappearance, the Smart girl has been found.
Good thing it was a slow news day. Good thing Pat Buchanan hadn’t just let loose with a 5000 word volley explaining who is getting us into an unwinnable war for the hearts and souls of oil fields. Good thing we don’t have to waste verbiage discussing trivia like Rumsfeld saying the US military doesn’t need the help of underequipped British troops after all. The little girl is back, as suddenly and inexplicably as a menu special at a fast food restaurant.
The little girl is back, to distract us from disaster, to let us know that We Are All Americans Again. That we all stand tall and proud behind John Walsh — to do otherwise would be un-American, and uncharitable to kidnapped white girls everywhere.
Because Elizabeth Smart is a humdinger of a consensus builder. Who wouldn’t give up his civil liberties so that that precious young lady could play her harp again? Certainly, “Hispanic men in late-model pick-up trucks” won’t mind answering questions for a few hours, if it helps to find her. And if those trucks need to be searched, or seized, and if those folks being questioned turn out to be evildoers of another stripe, then all the better.
But never mind what used to be the Bill of Rights. The parchment’s words have been bleached with white-out; replaced with a tri-color sticker that reads SANITIZED FOR YOUR PROTECTION. It’s not really that important what the Elizabeth Smart case has already wrought, so much as what is to come in the wake of her reappearance.
It’s no coincidence that police at all levels in the handling of the case have given credit to the media for the matter’s felicitous resolution. The declared success in this case will lead to more successes to come. Interested in hearing how much aid the US government is pledging to Cameroon? Don’t expect any insight on cable; Elizabeth Smart is found. Are the rogues in DC about to raise the debt ceiling yet again? Big deal; the next girl is missing, and this one did some modeling. Isn’t she precious? What was that about Richard Perle again?
Never mind, never mind. The public airwaves are pits of despair, run by a cabal interested in marketing the rankest forms of irrelevance to the American people as news. Nine months of the Elizabeth Smart show undoubtedly have taught them both what is working for them already and how to refine their techniques. Expect more pretty girls to turn up missing, and expect those moderates in the media who laugh at the impending slaughter in Southwest Asia to show us their tender sides once again. And that, in a nutshell, is the true nature of the Elizabeth Smart tragedy. She is a Barbie-doll totem, constructed out of air to distract us from what looks like nothing less than a full-on national collapse.
ANTHONY GANCARSKI is a regular CounterPunch columnist. Email: ANTHONY.GANCARSKI@ATTBI.COM