Joel and Mary Rich are among thousands of parents whose lives were upended when their children became victims of the gun death epidemic that has plagued this country for years, an epidemic that kills as many American every 90 days as have been killed by acts of terrorism in the last half-century. Like other families have had to do before and since, after Seth Rich was murdered in July 2016 on a street corner in Washington, D.C., his family had to deal with their personal grief as they planned and held a funeral to honor the memory of their 27 year old son.
I can’t imagine anything that would knock you to your knees harder than being a parent who lost a child, particularly a child killed in the prime of life in a senseless and unsolved murder. While losing a child rips a hole in a parent’s soul that never truly mends, the passage of time is supposed to permit a scab to grow over the wound so the healing process can do what it can beneath the surface to help make living with the pain a little more bearable.
It’s utterly shameful the way Seth Rich’s murder has been exploited and his family’s pain prolonged and compounded as a tool for political manipulation. As long as I can remember there have been people willing to peddle irrational conspiracy theories with the intention of undermining confidence in government and institutions. Some do it out of ignorance or blind hate, some because of mental instability, and others purposefully use it as a means to obtain power or make money. Social media enables them to organize more effectively and distribute their bile more easily just as terrorist groups leverage technology to recruit and foment hate. Think back to 2000 when Bush 43 strategist Karl Rove launched a “whisper campaign” to spread a rumor in South Carolina before the Republican primary that John McCain had an illegitimate black daughter. Now imagine being able to do the same thing from an iPhone relying on the internet instead of literal whispers to disseminate the message.
The murder of Seth Rich isn’t the first time a tragedy was shamefully exploited and it won’t be the last, but it does represent an inflection point that illustrates how detached our society has become from the ideal of an America built on core values and how dangerous the debasement of truth is to our future. When purveyors of outrageous fantasies, like InfoWars’ Alex Jones, incited gullible rubes with frothing outrage over claims that the federal government staged 9/11, faked the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and planned an invasion of Texas in conjunction with the United Nations to take away everybody’s guns, the insane narratives never took hold outside the wards where those already in the conspiracy camp resided. This time, however, exploiting the Seth Rich tragedy fit neatly into a grander strategy that served the political interests of a diverse group that ranged from the Russian government who wanted to sow discontent amongst the American public and undermine global faith in America to so-called Christian evangelicals willing to overlook any sin or flaw to defeat Hillary Clinton and implant their religious ideology into government policies and practices. This wasn’t just a scenario where an opportunistic grifter saw a chance to hawk his Jade Helm survival jerky to fleece a few bucks off the rubes, this was a confluence of interests that lent itself to a concerted effort to subvert American democracy.
The Seth Rich deception began with a few voices on the lunatic fringe the way most crackpot conspiracy theories do. The notion that a rumor Hillary Clinton had Rich murdered for passing Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks would make a good addition to the anti-Hillary character assassination innuendo arsenal didn’t take long to take root. Within weeks of the murder alt-right, pro-Russian, neocon voices with broader audiences – Roger Stone, Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich, Sputnik News, and WikiLeaks – had taken up the message. Julian Assange implied in news media interviews that Rich provided the DNC emails to WikiLeaks. Eric Bolling, the now suspended Fox News host, said Rich’s death clearly wasn’t a robbery, it was “a hit” and said it was “like an episode of Homeland.” Soon Sean Hannity was touting the assassination story on his radio and television shows, reaching millions who didn’t really need another reason to hate Clinton. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence supporting the assassination claim, it was one small cut among dozens of others designed to shred Clinton’s character to bits and paint her as dishonest and evil.
The strategy was successful. By November 8th, the public’s perception of Clinton’s honesty lagged Donald Trump’s even though Trump had proven himself to be the anti-George Washington: He could not tell a truth.
The Seth Rich deception didn’t fade away after the election. Fox News, particularly Hannity, continued to use it to deflect attention from the investigation of President Trump’s involvement with Russian meddling in the election. As late as May, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said on Fox News: “It turns out, it wasn’t the Russians. It was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee. He’s been killed, and apparently nothing serious has been done to investigate his murder.”
Just a few weeks ago Joel and Mary Rich asked everyone to “please cease using Seth as a political football in predetermined partisan narratives.” Go on Twitter or turn on cable news and you’ll see that it’s clear their wishes have been ignored and their son’s death continues to be bandied about to deflect attention away from Donald Trump and to help him keep the power it earlier helped him attain.
There’s nothing great about America in any part of the Seth Rich story beginning with the fact that he was the victim of a gun violence epidemic our government deliberately ignores. There’s nothing patriotic in victimizing an innocent family over and over again for political advantage or in mainstreaming strategic dishonesty, more commonly known as lying. I served in the armed forces for 25 years because I believe in the Constitution and the values that America purports to represent. The America I see today, the America reflected in the shameful abuse of Seth Rich’s life and death, is disheartening. It takes more than a slogan stitched onto a hat in China to make America great. It takes true faith and allegiance to values that are worth defending.
Contributing Editor: Morris Davis
Morris Davis is an attorney in Washington, D.C. He is a retired Air Force Colonel. He was Chief Prosecutor for the Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, from 2005 to 2007. The views expressed are his personal opinions in his private capacity.