How well do we know anybody? Not well, it seems. Each week brings another horrific headline and, with it, descriptions of those involved that often conflict with the facts.
Last Wednesday, Detroit was rocked by the news of a gruesome quadruple murder. Gregory Green, 49, of Dearborn Heights allegedly killed his two young children with poison and shot his two older stepchildren in front of their mother, Green's wife, whom he tortured and tied up in the basement.
As if that weren't shocking enough, after Green's arrest we learned he had murdered before - his first wife, 25 years ago. She was pregnant at the time.
He stabbed her to death.
Despite that, people close to him had actually pleaded on his behalf. "I don't believe Gregory is a threat to society," Green's mother, Tommie Green, wrote to a judge in 1992, according to a Free Press article last week. "I don't believe a long sentence will (make) him any better because he has suffered already and he will continue to suffer the rest of his life ... ."
Another woman, who claimed to work for the Michigan Department of Corrections, wrote this to the judge before Green was sentenced for second-degree murder: "Your honor, I know that Gregory is not a criminal, nor is he a threat to society."
Yet last week, if the charges prove true, Green, who served 16 years in prison, remained the worst kind of threat to society - a deadly one.
How well do we know anybody?
HARD TO SAY WHO WE TRULY KNOW
How could they defend him, we wonder? How could his second wife have married him or started a family with him - given his past? Who knows. You can't blame family members for defending their own.
But cases like Green's should wave a caution flag at the media's knee-jerk practice of quoting a mother, father, sibling or cousin in the immediate aftermath of violent incidents.
So often we hear things like "He's a family man" or "He wouldn't hurt anybody," or "He loved sports and went to church." Trouble is, these descriptions can run afoul of the facts.
Green's mother now seems deadly wrong about her own son. The neighbor who told the media that Kalamazoo Uber driver Jason Dalton was "a good family man" seems clueless, after Dalton was accused of killing six people. O.J. Simpson? Oscar Pistorius? Both highly esteemed before their murder chargers.
How well do we know anybody?
Of course, the alternative is to get no personal testimony, just go by things like criminal records. But these can also be limiting. Dalton had no criminal record before the shooting spree. Neither did Syed Rizwan Farook, who, along with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people and wounded 22 others during a terrorist attack in San Bernadino, Calif. Farook was born in the U.S. and, until that day, could have accurately been described as a law-abiding American citizen.
On the other hand, a few lines on a piece of paper - even if it's a rap sheet - don't tell a full human story, either. If I used the words, "a male in his 30s with two arrests on his record" you might flinch. But that's also a factual description of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, who despite two DUI arrests, is considered an American icon.
Which information paints the picture?
TOO QUICK TO JUDGE
These days, we are engrossed in judging highly publicized shootings and violence. And whatever we hear first we tend to repeat. There was a gun. There wasn't a gun. The guy was polite. The guy was belligerent. I'm not speaking of the right or wrong of shootings. I'm talking about how fast we form opinions of guilt, innocence and motivations of people that, let's face it, we don't know in the slightest.
Consider this statement from Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, who, along with fellow high school senior Eric Harris, planned and executed the Columbine massacre in 1999. I'm pretty sure, before that horrific day when her son took others' lives and finally his own, she would have said she knew her boy.
Now, in a book called "Far From the Tree" by Andrew Solomon, she said this:
"I used to think I could understand people, relate, and read them pretty well. After this, I realized I don't have a clue what another human being is thinking. We read our children fairy tales and teach them that there are good guys and bad guys. I would never do that now. I would say that every one of us has the capacity to be good and the capacity to make poor choices."
We never know who will make what choice when. Not the perpetrator. Not the victim. Sometimes, not even the person you share your home with. If we ever really accepted this, we might be a lot slower to judge.