December 31, 2018

Mocking Misery

Offense of the Month, December 2018
How do you get to be an offender of the month? If you’re in the right place at the right time — or maybe make that the wrong place at the wrong time — it’s pretty easy. You can do it in just three simple steps: (1) Take insensitive photos making light of and even mocking a disaster that killed scores of people. (2) Affix stupid captions that traffic in others’ grief. (3) Post your artwork to Facebook. Then just sit back and wait for it all to be discovered.

That’s how it was for Rob Freestone, December’s offender of the month.

Until about two weeks ago, Freestone was a crane operator employed by Bigge Crane and Rigging, a company hired to begin recovery efforts in Paradise, California, the worst hit of the many towns in Butte County, where the horrific Camp Fire killed at least eighty-five people and destroyed more than fourteen thousand homes in the space of seventeen days in November. The company’s job was to check and trim trees that posed an acute danger to returnees, rescue workers, and others.

Nosing about the ravaged properties, Freestone took a number of photos — a charred cat, a wrecked structure, a mailbox tricked out as a fire truck. Appended to each was Freestone’s idea of a funny caption — e.g., on the wrecked structure, showing two people appearing to be in the ruins of a vehicle beneath the legend: “They’re off on a fun filled vacation to unknown destinations in their new RV.”

The uproar wasn’t instantaneous. It took victims and others a month or so to discover and focus on the photos. But when they were posted to the Town of Paradise website in mid-December, the aggrieved lit up a public information recovery clearinghouse website with denunciations. Condemning Freestone’s “unacceptable and reprehensible behavior,” the Paradise town manager made it clear that Freestone and two co-workers “will no longer be working in our Town.” Bigge Crane didn’t hesitate. It fired the three within hours, proclaiming it had “identified the three participants in this abhorrent event and their employment has been terminated.”

Case closed? Probably, though perhaps not for want of seeking more. Several shoddy news stories that you can read in a few seconds each — here and here (and more if you webble them) said that police were investigating and criminal charges would be filed, even though most did not bother to say what crime might have been committed, leaving readers to surmise that offensive posting is against the law.

Turns out, perhaps, that Freestone violated an ordinance against unauthorized presence in an evacuated area. Of course, he was authorized to be there as a cleanup worker, but since his duties did not include taking pictures, his doing so might negate his legal authorization. That’s according to Matt Gates, Paradise police public information officer. I can find no account that any charges have been filed as of year’s end, or that taking photos while otherwise authorized to be present transforms an authorized worker into a trespasser.

As these things go, Rob Freestone’s mischievous frolic is just another in an unending stream of what David Letterman showcased as stupid human tricks. “Hey look, Ma,” Freestone might have been thinking, “I’m a secret satirist. Look at how arch I and my baddy buddies can be.” Making light of others’ misery is classic American buffoonery, though not its finest. (If Freestone does get charged, I’m waiting for the entrapment defense: “Facebook enticed me to do it.”)

Freestone’s tomfoolery was simply thoughtlessness — offensive on two counts. First, for gut-punching people who were in pain, physical and psychological; two, for witlessly ignoring the optics and doltishly inviting public wrath. Freestone’s punishment, his firing, was swift and probably proportionate. I’m not sure what else his employer could have done to mitigate the damage it might otherwise have suffered from associating with such a fatuous clown. The appetite for revenge thus sated, the whole matter will soon fade away, as these trivial sensations are fated to do, perhaps even by the time you are reading this.

But Freestone leaves behind the usual danger, one that looms ever larger in our overwrought era of hypersensitivity. Stoking the fury of the offended, our jejune jesters lead the affronted to demand harsh public discipline just because they are affronted, fueling the misguided but growing public belief that every wounding expression needs public salving. Freestone was pilloried for his “behavior” far more than for his expression or opinion. To label speech “behavior” is code for censorship. Next time one of your friends tries to be cute like Freestone, please talk him down before he gets talked up.