Reaction to Tibbetts’ Death Reveals Toxic Culture of Politicization

Editor’s Note: This article discusses physical violence.

Politics permeate everything we do and say, from deciding which candidates or issues we support to our everyday interactions with other people. Our political alignments even seem to guide how we cope with both everyday and abnormal circumstances and events, such as major tragedies. This constant and inescapable politicalization is especially clear when observing reactions to the recent death of Mollie Tibbetts.

Tibbetts, an Iowa college student, was going for a run in her hometown when a man named Cristhian Bahena Rivera began to pursue her. According to what Rivera later told law enforcement, Tibbetts threatened to call the police, and Rivera panicked. What happened next is “blocked” from his memory, but he recalls finding himself in a cornfield with Tibbetts in the trunk of his car, when he noticed that she had blood on the side of her head and decided to leave her in the field. In the security footage, he is shown following her in his car before her abduction while she was on her run; he would later lead the authorities to the body.

The media has been particularly aggressive in reporting on Tibbett’s death. This is not necessarily unusual; the United States has historically been captivated by mysterious disappearances of the white girl-next-door, from JonBenét Ramsey to the fictitious Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks. Tibbetts’ case, like many others, might have been merely relegated to the realm of true crime fanatics if not for one thing: Her killer is an immigrant.

Immigration laws and reform have been a hot-button issue for a long time, and tensions were particularly high this summer when news broke of immigration detention centers and the horrible conditions in which families were being separated and children were being detained. Under the Trump administration, thinly veiled indifference and racism have transformed into blatantly hateful rhetoric and open hostility. Intolerance and white supremacy have become a source of pride for many right-wing and alt-right individuals. Trump has consistently and publicly linked immigrants with crime and depravity, even though many studies have shown that crime rates and immigration rates are not directly linked. Because of this current climate surrounding immigration, I groaned when I heard about Millie Tibbett’s fate and I feared what the government’s response would be.

The right wasted no time. Donald Trump, Jr. wrote an op-ed for the Des Moines Register slamming Democrats who are “more concerned with protecting their radical open-borders agenda than the lives of innocent Americans.” He seized on Tibbetts’ death and the deaths of other Americans killed by immigrants to support construction of the infamous border wall and to delegitimize the immigration reform policies that liberals have been trying to put in place.

Many other Republicans followed suit; for example, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds stated that all Iowans “are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community.”

Following this condemnation by conservative politicians across the country, all eyes were on the Tibbetts family to see if they would share the same rage.

The day after the op-ed was published, Rob Tibbetts, Mollie’s bereaved father, published a reply in the Register to say that Mollie “was nobody’s victim. Nor is she a pawn in others’ debate.” He stated that she was vehemently against the demonization of immigrants, and pleaded, “At long last, show some decency. On behalf of my family and Mollie’s memory, I’m imploring you to stop.”

Tibbetts also offered an apology to the Latinx community for the Republicans’ response and asked those invested in Mollie’s case to show compassion toward each other and “turn against racism in all its ugly manifestations both subtle and overt.”

The reply made me emotional, to say the least. I never expected a response from Tibbetts’ family to the politicization of her murder in the first place; I assumed that they would want to mourn in privacy. Rob Tibbetts’ statement was brave and admirable, but I resented the fact that he had to make it at all.

Tibbetts’ plea to simply mourn his daughter was largely ignored by the right — politicians continued to weaponize her death, and the Tibbetts family recently received a robo-call from a neo-Nazi organization saying that if Mollie were still alive, she would want all immigrants dead. Even in a time when I have become desensitized to politicalization, the relentless manipulation of a young girl’s life is shocking to me.

Not all Republicans had the same reaction as Trump or Reynolds, but questions still remain about their priorities. Why did they pounce on Tibbetts’ murder but say nothing about the recent murder of Nia Wilson, a black teenager who in Oakland, CA, was stabbed randomly by a white man with a history of violence? Why has Jasmine Moody — a black college student missing since 2014 — not inspired a nationwide search and news coverage? This is not to say that I don’t believe that Tibbetts’ case was important. However, there is a reason why she was chosen as America’s newest martyr: She was innocent, she was killed by an immigrant, and she was white.

As students at Oberlin — an institution that encourages conversations about diversity — we should question how we are conditioned to respond to certain situations and people. Mollie Tibbetts and Nia Wilson both made national news — which one held your attention, and why? If we can chalk it up to either abundance or lack of media coverage, then it is up to us as thinkers and Americans to seek out our own information and to question what we are told to believe. Using a girl as the poster child for a cause she and her family did not believe in is not mourning — it is manipulation of a tragedy intended only for political gain.