The Annie Le media frenzy continues

Monday, September 21, 2009 | 11:31 a.m. CDT

Death is continuing its grim rounds during this month, as in any other. The world population clock ticks on, counting up the year’s newly dead at a rate of about two per second. Yet the major news outlets have recently focused their attention on just one of the reaper’s September victims: Annie M. Le.

Le, a 24-year-old graduate student at Yale University, was strangled on Sept. 8 and found stuffed in the walls of the research lab where she worked. There she ran tests on creatures like mice and monkeys in a quest to discover the Next Big Thing. Alongside her worked technicians, people doing all the tedious work that running a large animal lab requires. One of them, 24-year-old Raymond Clark III, was charged with her murder on Sept. 17. His and Le's faces have been staples on televisions and in newspapers ever since.

The world is firstly rapt by Le’s death because it occurred within the walls of one of our nation’s most revered ivory towers. New Haven, Conn., is supposed to be a safe haven where our best and brightest can be groomed to change the world, and Le's demise makes it seem like we’re sending our scholastic all-stars to slaughter.

In his statement about the killing, Yale president Richard Levin tried to emphasize that it was not a result of the campus being unsafe: “This incident could have happened in any city, in any university, or in any workplace,” he said. “It says more about the dark side of the human soul than it does about the extent of security measures.”

Campus safety aside, a death at Yale still smacks of boundless, unfulfilled promise, which makes Le appear a much-greater-than-average loss. Compound that with her plans to wed a fiancé who is studying at Columbia University, and the murder seems to have robbed the world not only of her future accomplishments but those of her Ivy-League babies. (The cruel timing of her demise, right before she started a life as a wife, certainly doesn’t make the story less captivating either.)

This particular death isn’t the center of a great fuss just because of the victim, though; we have on our hands a textbook case of the he-seemed-so-normal scenario, and the media is playing up the irony something awful.

CNN ran a story online with the headline “Raymond Clark ‘not at all’ violent, pal since first grade says.” Calling the source a “pal” brings to mind an image of Clark as a guileless, freckle-faced little rascal, as does the mention of first grade. And if that weren’t mawkish enough, the excerpt below actually included the fact that Clark “loved his dog.”

It’s much like the excitement that surrounded the so-called Craigslist killer, an engaged-to-be-wed medical school student who shot a woman selling massages on Craigslist after he arranged a meeting with her at a hotel. In a Vanity Fair article, the writer harps on the little "proofs" of normality that proved red herrings in his case: “(The couple’s) wedding Web site detailed their four-year romance — their meeting as volunteers at an Albany hospital, his proposal on a beach in Maine.”

Clark similarly didn’t seem like a killer (which, it’s worth noting, has not yet been proven), right down to the attachment of “III” to his name. That suffix connotes tradition, legacy, the noble carryings-on of history and nurturing of his family tree. And yet he seems to have unthinkably lopped a branch off someone else’s: Murder is always sexier when things aren’t what they seem.

Ironically, one of the few explanations being offered up as to why Clark would kill Le is wrapped up in his being average. Take this headline from the New York Times: “Demanding Job in a Divided Lab, Then a Murder.” The article paints the picture of a second-class citizen having done all the dreary work, scraping cages clean and euthanizing animals, while researchers such as Le stood by in their pristine white coats, thinking big and leaving their messes for the blue-collar Clarks to clean up.

Highlighting the class conflict might be a rather empty attempt at explaining the supposed motive, but it also makes the murder eerier. Look around the workplace, that reasoning implies, particularly at those people doing menial jobs who you don’t pay attention to: Make a wrong move, and they’ll relocate your office inside the wall behind the water cooler.

That eeriness is being heightened as outlets run stories saying the motive might never be revealed because that means the media’s audience can take away no lessons about how to avoid similar outcomes themselves. And the longer we have to wait to find out, the longer Le’s demise will remain in the spotlight, even as thousands more tick, tick, tick their way off this mortal coil. 

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist for the Missourian and an editor for Vox Magazine. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her work has been published by a variety of outlets, including The Guardian and Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.



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