Sunday, April 04, 2004

Audrey Seiler vs. George Bush

Audrey Seiler is a young University of Wisconsin-Madison student who disappeared for several days and then re-appeared, pretending to have been abducted. Apparently the story made national headlines. It was absolutely huge here in Madison, where I live.

There were main sets of stories the media told us, as the days went by. First, she was missing for several days (tragedy; family suffering, friends worried; community concerned about her and about crime in the area). Then she was found (great relief! Joy, family togetherness, community relief). Finally, the details of the hoax came out (scandal; anger, sadness, feelings of betrayal from the community; calls to throw her in jail or make her pay restitution for the police dollars spent trying to find her).

A lot could be said about her, and the case itself. Quite a lot has been said, and written, in Madison alone.

One thing that struck me was how fast and how easily her story came apart in the hands of a competent police department. They did some investigating and found some inconsistencies. They then took Audrey into a room and confronted her with the evidence that she had been making it all up. There were apparently inconsistencies in the stories she had told various people; there was physical evidence that she had not been where she said she had been; there was evidence on her computer that she had been searching for good places to hide, and checking out long-term weather forecasts. There was even evidence that she had been back in her apartment during the time when she was “missing.” The police just rounded up all the information, presented her with it, and she confessed to having made it all up.

It took only a couple of days from the time the police began having suspicions about Audrey, to the time when her story completely fell apart and she told the truth. And almost immediately, everybody in town knew a great deal about the story.

The anger at Audrey is pretty much universal in the Madison area. Some people do argue that we should pity her as we treat her apparent mental illness. But that’s about as positive as the conventional wisdom around here gets. Nobody has anything positive to say about her. Some people are angry about the money the City of Madison wasted trying to find her -- about $75,000 by the estimates I have seen.

Being the political junkie that I apparently have become, I just have to compare all of this to the story of George Bush misleading the nation into invading Iraq, and lying like crazy about what happened on 9/11 and shortly before and afterwards.

First, how long does it take to find out that someone is lying? In Audrey’s case, a couple of days. In the case of the Bush lies, the answer is months and years, and counting. Why the difference? In part, no doubt, because Audrey is not a lifelong student of the art of lying, unlike our political leaders. (I can’t believe that I didn’t know until recently that Cheney and other Bush folks were in the Nixon administration.) And in part because the cops can’t just get Bush (or Cheney, or Rice, or anybody) in a room and confront him with all the evidence of his lies until they just up and admit it. (The 9/11 commission is working on it, of course, and we can hope for the best.)

Second, what does it take to get people really angry? In Audrey’s case, we were lied to, but not by any prominent elected official. Nobody died. It cost the City of Madison about $75,000. In Bush’s case, we were lied to by the people we elected; hundreds of American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died; and we’re out hundreds of billions. And yes, true story, there are many people in Madison angrier at Audrey than they are at Bush.

Scary stuff.

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