I’ve been distressed and in some only vaguely understood way compelled by the recent news concerning poor John P. “Jack” Wheeler III. He was very much the star of Rick Atkinson’s “The Long Gray Line,” which book I read not long after it came out in the late 1980s. It’s not like I’ve spent the last twenty years constantly thinking about him, but, still, I would think of the book, and him, from time to time. Great books stay with you like that.
Wheeler himself graduated from West Point in 1966, and later he earned an MBA from Harvard and a JD from Yale. He was the chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, responsible for getting the memorial built. (You kids wouldn’t believe the fuss about that at the time.) He was also the first chairman and CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. More recently, apparently, he’d launched the American Warfighters Fund, working to end the ROTC ban at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia.
So what’s really weird is that on Friday last, New Year’s Eve, 2010, some minutes before 10:00 a.m., someone called the Wilmington Police Department about a body tumbling out of a Waste Management truck into the Cherry Island Landfill. And that body turned out to be Jack Wheeler. And somebody, according to the Delaware Medical Examiner’s Office, murdered him.
Part of why I’m compelled by this saga may just be normal, prurient interest, what with a marginally prominent government official meeting such a gruesome demise. Part of it, too, might just be that I also happened to have heard of him at something of a formative time in my youth. But I think a lot of it is what I first took to be the sheer unlikeliness of it. The Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows was a friend, turns out, and he points us to this quote from the story in the Delaware News Journal:
“This is just not the kind of guy who gets murdered,” said Bayard Marin, a Wilmington attorney who represented Wheeler. “This is not the kind of guy you find in a landfill.”
And I follow what he means. But, then again, I don’t. Who, then, are the kinds of people who get murdered? Who is the kind of guy you would find in a landfill?
I truly don’t mean to be flip about this. And I’m certainly not in any way condemning the way Bayard Marin or James Fallows feels, since I think I must have felt the same way initially, and they knew him where I didn’t. But what do we mean when we think that there are kinds of people who get murdered and kinds of people who don’t? And what does it mean to our worldview when the kind of person who doesn’t get murdered does, in fact, get murdered?