Editorial: A tragedy compounded

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

On Christmas Day, two traffic accidents occurred on U.S. Highway 69 near La Cygne, the second of which left a man dead and a woman and her young children traumatized.

According to the Kansas Highway Patrol crash report, the man had been driving southbound with three adult family members as passengers, when his vehicle left the road and overturned around 7:20 p.m.

He exited the vehicle and entered the roadway about five minutes later. While standing or walking on the highway in the dark, he was struck by a southbound vehicle driven by a woman, who had her two young children as passengers. As a result of the collision, the man died.

None of the occupants in the man's vehicle had been wearing seat belts. Two of them were injured in the first accident and were transported to a hospital.

All of the occupants in the woman's vehicle were wearing seat belts or restraints and neither the woman nor her children sustained any injury.

Even before the tragic incident was reported by the news media, the rumor mills were turning. The man and woman happened to be from the same town, and gossip began to fly. Unsubstantiated accounts of what happened that night grew and twisted with each telling, until the facts became unrecognizable.

The woman and her family began receiving telephone calls from people voicing wild accusations that had no basis, whatsoever, in truth.

The anguish and pain she and her children already felt over the terrible accident that took a man's life was made even worse by the savage cruelty of others who presumed to speculate, jump to conclusions, and even pass judgement.

Perhaps it's part of human nature to pass "news" of tragic events by word of mouth, but most of us know that the facts become distorted and the story is almost always embellished as events are relayed along the "grapevine." People have a tendency to change the story, either due to faulty memory, or because the actual facts don't fit their pre-conceived ideas, or because they dislike one of the parties involved.

What we all should remember is that rumors unsupported by fact very often hurt innocent people. False rumors have driven people from the hometowns where they've lived their entire lives. Gossip has destroyed reputations so thoroughly that, even when vindicated by the truth, they can never be fully restored. Lives can be ruined by scandals based on nothing more than hearsay.

This is the beginning of a new year, a time when we can all start fresh and resolve to do better. One resolution that would surely make the world a better place is the promise to take all rumors with a healthy dose of skepticism and to avoid passing on gossip that can hurt others.