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Sunday, February 04, 2007

How a suspect became a person of interest

By Dick Hirsch
When I was younger I aspired to be a person of interest. Actually, it was more serious than a mere aspiration, it was more of an intense yearning: I wanted to develop into a person of interest.
That goal included the ability to engage in interesting pursuits in interesting places with other interesting people. More importantly, it involved becoming a person who felt comfortable in a variety of situations, including wide-ranging conversations over a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer, a critique following a concert, play or movie, or an informed explanation of a complex political situation or the failure of a team to record more wins than losses.
Whether I ever succeeded in attaining that status I am not in a position to say. It is a well established fact that everyone believes that they themselves are an interesting person; thus it is impossible for any individual to make an objective and accurate assessment of his or her own interest quotient. That evaluation must be made by others.
With that as background, becoming a person of interest was always a worthy and admirable, although unspoken, goal. Until now.
Now “a person of interest” has emerged as a newly coined euphemism that is being popularized by police departments and quickly adopted by the news media, always willing to include a description that makes their reports sound somewhat more intelligent. The press traditionally attempted to avoid euphemisms, which are best described as agreeable and inoffensive terms that are substituted for more direct and accurate words.
But some editors apparently aren’t being as careful as they once were, guarding against euphemisms. On several occasions I’ve seen stories in the daily paper reporting that a person had passed away, when they had really only died. The usage of passed away was forbidden by newspaper stylebooks.
In the current situation, the authorities and the media have conspired to delete any use of the word “suspect” from their public statements and reports. You can be sure that the guys down at headquarters and the reporters in the newsroom still talk about suspects, but they have decided to sanitize it for public consumption for fear of offending someone.
Consider the view of anyone described as a person of interest. Who is kidding who? They know exactly what is transpiring: because of some activity thought to be suspicious, they are considered to be a suspect.
I still prefer suspect. It’s a perfectly good word and one of the first things they tried to teach you in Newswriting 101 was that was the description to be used until a person was actually accused or charged. Just recently I was suspected of tracking mud on the living room carpet, but never actually accused.
There is no better word that suspect. It is direct and descriptive, yet it reaches no conclusion. A suspect is only a suspect.
One of the most famous lines in movie history still resonates today. It was uttered by actor Claude Rains, playing the role of Capt. Louis Renault, in everybody’s favorite movie classic, “Casablanca.” Remember? The lovers, Ilse (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) were at the airport in Casablanca, attempting to board the last plan and flee to Lisbon, when the local Nazi commandant, Major Strasser, arrives, gun in hand, and is determined to stop and arrest them.
Rick (Humphrey Bogart) won generations of admirers when he pulled a pistol from his pocket and shot Strasser before the very eyes of the police captain, played by Claude Rains, who immediately picked up a phone, called headquarters and delivered that wonderful line:
“Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.”
I don’t know why, when or where it all began, this conspiracy to create a sweet smelling phrase to replace suspect. I’ve asked some attorney friends if they could offer and explanation and none of them had the vaguest idea, although one suggested it was the latest move in a continuing effort to be kind to suspects and perpetrators.
I believe that. I also believe that such a strategy was stimulated by the success of such terms as pre-owned, correctional facility and sanitary landfill. I laughed aloud when I heard the first commercial for a pre-owned Cadillac, pre-owned so potential buyers shouldn’t feel diminished by considering a used car. It’s a trend, but for many of us, a prison is still and prison and a dump is a dump.


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