Hasty solutions to fear are dangerous

After days of searching for Dru Sjodin, there is now a face – and a face is all that is needed to put fear in the public mind and push policies that couldn’t otherwise succeed.

The face placed in newspapers is next to the bright, smiling face of Sjodin. It is the face of a man who might have a “foreign” accent, and who has been convicted of sex crimes before. He is now the link between nightmare and reality. He is tangible, his picture is real, and the police have him where he cannot escape. His sister is already asking the public to leave her family alone as the phone calls, honks and general harassment begin.

The face belongs to convicted and recently released Level 3 sex offender Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who was arrested and brought in for questioning.

We don’t know if Rodriguez is guilty of anything since his release from prison in May. Coincidence could have put his car in the Grand Forks, N.D., mall parking lot Nov. 22, the day Sjodin disappeared. Maybe he was Christmas shopping. Maybe not. The investigation will sort that out and, I hope, return Sjodin safely to her parents and loved ones.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is using Rodriguez to bring the death penalty back into the court of public opinion, juxtaposing the vibrant face of Sjodin with Rodriguez’s image.

I don’t doubt the governor’s personal heartache concerning Sjodin and her family – he seems like a decent enough fellow, politics aside – but the inherent ambiguity following a public tragedy always leaves an open door where a political leader can provide meaning and context. Pawlenty saw that door crack open as we feared for the young woman and began hating her assailant before there was a face to hate.

When that face emerged, a Latino previously convicted of heinous sexual assault, the door swung open and the governor entered to lend meaning to a seemingly meaningless situation. The solution presented to a dazed and ripe public was to kill him – not necessarily kill Rodriguez, but what he represents: the heartless face of a man outside the mainstream, with no conscience, diseased with predatory sexual urges.

Reinstituting capital punishment against Rodriguez or future Rodriguezes would not cause a real stir, by and large, because those being executed would be so demographically removed from the majority of Minnesota’s citizenry. The capital crimes will be unspeakable, the faces frightening, the need for vengeance pure and wildly coursing through our collective veins. Now, Pawlenty is providing an outlet for our fear and


Is this the first horrific predatory crime perpetrated against an innocent victim since 1911 when capital punishment was abolished in Minnesota? No. If we feel a desire to kill Rodriguez with an injection for what he might have done, is it the first time we have felt such outrage and wanted violent retribution? No. So why now? Why this tragedy? Why this victim and why this suspect?

More coercive and disquieting than possible reasons I can come up with is the fear in which we have tightly wrapped ourselves and our outlook on life since September 2001; that is what makes the governor’s capital punishment discussion palatable. It is not just the normal fear and angst we experience in a tragedy like Sjodin’s (“What if that were my daughter?”), but the sense of pending danger and unreasonable criminal (terrorist) mentality surrounding us in the news and the world.

Fear launched two pre-emptive military strikes, made us wait in interminable airport security lines with our shoes off, continues to make us avoid “the bad neighborhood,” puts helmets on kids riding tricycles in the driveway, and this week makes us susceptible to a change in state policy comfortably on the books for more than 90 years.

Many feel pain as the days of Sjodin’s disappearance mount, and hate when a convicted felon such as Rodriguez is given to us as a suspect. However, while a tragedy is still fresh and pain and hate are still roiling inside us, there should be aloofness toward sweeping policy change and forwarding political agendas.

Our feelings too easily lead to the first hint of meaning and a solution.

Aaron North is a columnist. He welcomes comments at [email protected]