The world wants heroes, and we in the news media are always eager to supply them, especially when law enforcement gives its stamp of approval.
Thus was born the sad, strange saga of Lt. Charles Joseph “G.I. Joe” Gliniewicz, the supposed dead hero who we are now told was just another dirty cop trying to cover his tracks, his only real distinction being how far he was willing to go to hide the truth.
This is a man so committed to preserving his gung ho image — as well as his survivor benefits — that he shot himself not once but twice, the pain from the first shot into his bulletproof vest failing to deter him from his plan.
Yet the myth of G.I. Joe dies hard, doesn’t it? How else to explain the disbelieving Fox Lake residents unwilling in the aftermath of Wednesday’s press conference to acknowledge the ugly truth of his suicide, none of it squaring with the man they thought they knew.
There’s a lesson here for all of us. Even now the truth gets lost between the mythmaking and the cold, hard facts outlined by Lake County Major Crimes Task Force Commander George Filenko.
Gliniewicz may truly have been the much admired mentor to hundreds of young men and women hoping to become police officers through the Fox Lake Explorers Unit, as well as a devoted father and member of his community, just as we were told.
And this same man could have used the Explorers money as his personal piggybank and done worse to protect his secrets, either because he lost his way or because he never really was the man he publicly projected.
Are we so wedded to our black-and-white cartoon portrayals of heroes and villains that we can’t acknowledge the vast sea of gray with which we deal every day?
That’s not meant in any way to excuse Gliniewicz. I know that it is now incumbent on us in the news media to tear down the legend of G.I. Joe as eagerly as we built it up.
The truth is that I know little about Gliniewicz other than what I’ve read or learned during Wednesday’s press briefing. And now it is all suspect, another reminder that only a few people know any of us well, and even they don’t know everything.
I’m most interested in the process that led to Gliniewicz being held up as a hero.
It starts, as I suggested before, with a thirst for heroes. We want to know that some of us bravely stand out from the rest, run toward the danger instead of away from it, as they said of Gliniewicz at his funeral.
The news media knows this and stands ready to please. Dead heroes work best. Nobody wants to speak ill of the dead. People are more willing to suspend their natural skepticism that tells them all men and women are flawed. We smooth out the rough edges of a life and show only the good, often the only part we are shown.
A police officer “shot and killed in the line of duty,” as U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin gravely asserted was the case with Gliniewicz in a speech from the floor of Congress on the day after his funeral, is an automatic hero.
The only thing to prevent that hero treatment would have been a signal from law enforcement to tread softly because something didn’t add up. No signal was forthcoming, although we now know there should have been doubts very quickly.
Gliniewicz’s timing was perfect, although I doubt that even he could have imagined how eagerly the nation would soak up the mystery of the three missing men he had supposedly gone to investigate just before he killed himself.
His death came at a time the law enforcement community was only too eager to remind us that Blue Lives Matter after a summer in which many of those lives felt devalued.
There’s no sense second-guessing the massive manhunt that arguably made sense considering the fog that Gliniewicz created.
But it’s hard to understand why Lake County investigators were still telling the public a month ago they viewed the case as a homicide.
Once you’ve created a hero, it’s embarrassing to have to let him go.