Tuesday, January 5, 2010

COLT’S FANS: Reasonable or Reprehensible?

At first, the media sensationalized Colt’s story with jaunty newspaper and TV headlines comparing him to Frank Abagnale of Catch Me If You Can fame (remember, that movie was primarily a comedy that had you rooting for con man Abagnale as played by DiCaprio). However, after law enforcement officials and some commentators came out strongly saying that it was wrong, even deplorable, to give the kid that kind of attention, the media began chewing on its own tail. There was a rash of law-and-order backlash, hissy fit articles, and TV talking heads denigrating the Facebookies on Colt’s fan club for “romanticizing” a criminal. Once the police and mainstream press staked out a clear position that the Colt “hero” cult was, as one said, “disgusting,” the effect was instantaneous and utterly predictable: The Colton Harris-Moore Fan Club gained 3,000 members in a single day. Since then, again and again, each time there’s a new story that busts on Facebook fans, the club grows bigger.

Of course the fan club itself has a good number of posts from people who flame anyone in the “Fly, Colton, Fly” camp as pathetic. So what’s up with the back and forth? If you follow the story and root for Colt to stay free, you’re a crook? If you want him to get caught or killed, you’re a narc? Rebellious kids with computers love Colt, but mature adults who get their news the old fashioned way (interrupted by erectile dysfunction and constipation commercials) hate him? Anarchists for Colt; conservatives for cops? Or is it more complicated than that?

Professor Graham Seal literally wrote the book about the English-speaking world’s long-time fascination with outlaw legends and what makes us elevate criminals to some kind of hero status (I’ll discuss whether Colt should be considered an anti-hero or Byronic hero in a later post). I asked Seal if today’s tough, recessionary times make it ripe for an outlaw break out. “Economic hardship does produce outlaw heroes,” he says, naming John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd who shot their way out of the Great Depression and into the public eye.

What about the bickering between the “Colt’s cool” and the “Colt’s just a douchebag crook” crowds? Seal says “Outlaw heroes aren’t celebrated simply because they’re criminals — there are always plenty of those around.”

Indeed, talk to the police in Island County (Colt’s home) and you find that Colt’s not even their most prolific criminal.

“We just arrested and convicted a young man named Nicholas Yost, who we believe did twice as many burglaries around here as Colton,” says Island County detective, Ed Wallace. “But nobody’s talking about him.”

And then there’s the 20-year-old former accomplice of Colt’s from the nearby town of Stanwood, a guy who also carries a rebel-ready handle — Harley Davidson Ironwing — and also escaped from a group home. But neither Nick nor Harley have fan clubs, let alone ones with more than 15,000 members from all over the world. Why not?

To really make it into the outlaw pantheon, professor Seals says, the guy (and it’s nearly always a man, he says) has to go beyond common criminality. He also needs “a few actual or mythic characteristics, such as the ability to elude capture… as well as a bit of style.”

Nicholas Yost’s m.o. was to smash down people’s doors, steal and then pawn their TVs. Boring and thuggish. Colt, at least while he’s on the run, often breaks into unoccupied vacation homes in tourist destinations just to shower, sleep and forage for food and cash — basically living off the fat of the land.

Colt’s eluded capture for long periods of time: first for seven months and this latest time for over 18 months. He’s also escaped many close calls with police. Harley Davidson Ironwing? Yes, he escaped (or rather just didn’t come back after a day of work release from a prison home), but he got caught five days later shoplifting in a mall.

Now add in Colt’s manner of escape and evasion: Allegedly stealing boats, luxury cars and even planes when he wants to get someplace else quick. Hell, when James Bond gets into a tight spot and needs to escape whatever idiosyncratic, pussy-petting psychopath who wants to rule the world that week, he commandeers the nearest boat, sports car or plane … and sells a lot of movie tickets. Even if you’re a law-abiding citizen or a Colt hater, you gotta admit he’s got something like style, or if not, at least a big pair of brass danglies.

I don’t think reasonable people are minimizing Colt’s many, many victims. And no, I’m sure none of them would, as is the most common bitch, “like it if he robbed their house.” The one constant refrain of his “supporters” seems to be “Don’t hurt anybody!” Seal agrees when I theorize that Colt’s non-violence is essential to making it socially acceptable to root for him.

So, I think that saying it’s abhorrent to acknowledge, even grudgingly admire what this now 18-year-old kid with very little education, guidance or support has done while on the run is like saying that no one should ever call attention to the sun being shiny, because it also gives people skin cancer.

From computer hackers to Hell’s Angels to Osama Bin Laden, charismatic outlaws always attract their own constituency of supporters and romanticizers. Even Eric Rudolph -- the anti-abortion, anti-gay murderer and Olympic bomber -- found succor and sympathy in the hills of Appalachia. For awhile, “Run Rudolph Run” T-shirts were all the rage at white supremacist hoedowns. With Colt, at least until he crosses a vaguely defined line of the acceptable outlaw code by physically hurting someone, there will exist a broader appeal. For now, it’s relatively clean and easy for “fans” to think of him as Denis the flying Menace, as their Jesse James Bond.

Stay tuned for more with Professor Seal on the psychology of why we sympathize with outlaws like Colt.

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