Census worker Bill Sparkman's death in September set off a rush of speculation and commentary about right-wing extremism. On Tuesday, police ruled the death a suicide.
A middle-aged census worker hung naked from a tree in the woods of Kentucky, the word "FED" scrawled on his chest.
That image, of course, turned out to be too neat to be true: Census worker Bill Sparkman staged his suicide to look like a murder by some rural antigovernment extremist, so his family would benefit from his life insurance policies. But even before the police had begun investigating the incident, the scene prompted a wave of commentary about right-wing extremism, with one prominent blogger talking about the spectre of "Southern populist terrorism."
The rush to judgment was found mostly on partisan websites but also in mainstream media outlets, which some commenters say shows that paranoia about political insurrection and violence is no longer restricted to the fringes of American politics.
"It was a spooky scene and a bizarre episode ... but the way in which people rushed to assume it was [political murder] showed that they were so eager to connect the dots that they ran ahead of what the evidence was," says Jesse Walker, managing editor of the libertarian Reason magazine. "The takeaway from the Kentucky story is that the establishment is just as capable of making that mistake as the fringes."
The reaction was understandable, to an extent. Apart from the details of the scene itself, a Department of Homeland Security report earlier this year had warned of an increase in right-wing extremism, including radicalization of US soldiers.