Saturday, March 12, 2005

ANOTHER LOOK AT THE ZOMBIE STORY ... Elayne Riggs has a post about the Kentucky high school student who was arrested for "terroristic threatening" after his grandmother found some writings of his that alarmed her. As I wrote on March 6, the boy said that what he had written was a short story about zombies taking over a high school.

Elayne refers to a post about this case at Neil Gaiman's blog, of which I had been unaware until I read her post about 10 minutes ago. Neil links to an article on the Lexington Herald-Leader's website, which quotes a local police detective, Steven Caudill, to the effect that the writing had nothing to do with zombies, but rather was about a "bloody shootout" in "Zone 2," which is the student's term for Clark County, where he lives.

Here is a portion of what the Herald-Leader's reporter writes:

In an interview after his arrest, Poole told WLEX-TV (Channel 18) that he had simply written a fictional story about zombies taking over an unidentified high school.

Sympathizers who saw the news story on the Internet have sent dozens of e-mail messages to police, the county attorney, teachers and others. In e-mail and on Web bulletin boards, they have suggested local authorities are "idiots" and "incestuous hillbillies" who were out to take away Poole's right to free speech.

However, Poole's teachers told police they had not assigned such a story or talked to him about it -- and had they seen it, they would have been obligated to report him to authorities.

And, as it turns out, Poole's writings include no brain-eating dead folks.

What they do contain, Winchester police Detective Steven Caudill testified yesterday, is evidence that he had tried to solicit seven fellow students to join him in a military organization called No Limited Soldiers.

The writings describe a bloody shootout in "Zone 2," the designation given to Clark County.

"All the soldiers of Zone 2 started shooting," Caudill read on the witness stand. "They're dropping every one of them. After five minutes, all the people are lying on the ground dead."

The papers contain two different dates of Poole's death.

The article also reports that Caudill testified that Poole (the student), "corresponded with someone in Barbourville who claimed to have acquired cash and guns in break-ins. ..."

Elayne is absolutely correct in saying that the people who criticized the local Kentucky authorities for charging Poole with "terroristic threatening" when all he did was write a piece of fiction may have jumped to conclusions and need to acknowledge that they may have been wrong. Obviously, I am one of those people; and it does appear that there is more to this story than what it seemed to be at first.

So, I plead guilty to assuming the worst of the local authorities when they may have been acting in good faith to stop what could have been a real and serious threat of school violence.

That said (you knew there was going to be a "But," didn't you?), I am not yet prepared to accept at face value the charges that Poole "made threats against students, teachers and police." Let's take a look at some of the details in this story, shall we?

  • The Herald-Leader piece says that "Poole's teachers told police they had not assigned such a story or talked to him about it -- and had they seen it, they would have been obligated to report him to authorities." But in the original news article I linked to in my March 6 piece, Poole said nothing about his teachers assigning him the story he wrote. He said he wrote the story for his English class, but the topic was something he made up from his head. He did not claim or imply (in this article, at least) that his teachers had given him an assignment to write about zombies taking over a high school. My sense is that they told him (or the class) to write a piece of fiction, and this is what he chose to write.
  • The portion of Poole's short story that Caudill read in court does not sound like a threat against his students and teachers to me. Granted, we're only seeing one sentence from the story, but this is what the newspaper article gave us. And that sentence -- "All the soldiers of Zone 2 started shooting. They're dropping every one of them. After five minutes, all the people are lying on the ground dead." -- sounds like a description of a military attack. With the exception of the phrase "Zone 2," it could be a news account of the U.S. siege of Fallujah. How surprising is it that an 18-year-old kid who has been exposed to endless news for years about bloody attacks, shock and awe, bombing, shooting and killing insurgents, suicide bombing and body parts scattered everywhere would have that sort of thing on his mind? Is it possible that Poole was not trying to threaten or plan an attack of his own, but merely writing, in fictional form, about what he reads and hears every day?
  • Last, what on earth does "The papers contain two different dates of Poole's death" mean?

So -- here is my bottom line: By all means, we should not (and I should not have) jump to conclusions about Poole's arrest or the content of his writing; but neither should we go to the opposite extreme and say that the authorities are right about what Poole wrote and what he intended by writing it, and that he absolutely is guilty of "terroristic threatening" against his students and teachers. I, for one, will continue to watch this story as it plays out, and I will continue to remain skeptical.

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