Monday, April 19, 2010

Oklahoma City bombing

One of the youngest victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, an act of domestic terrorism which was carried out 15 years ago today, was 1-year-old Baylee Almon (pictured in a firefighter's arms). The photograph by amateur Charles Porter IV won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. Symbolic of the tragedy, it appeared on the front page of many newspapers and in many other media, thrusting bereft mother Aren Almon into the spotlight. While that image went around the world, Almon was able to suppress images of her daughter taken by Oklahoma Natural Gas (ONG) employee Lester Larue and transferred to T-shirts (and so was ONG, which successfully sued Larue for copyright, since he took his pictures with company equipment while on company time).

The result was that Baylee's mother became the focus of a nation's grief - and the object of a bit of resentment among the families of the other 18 children (and 149 adults) killed in the blast. Almon was the only parent initially contacted by the governor about planning a memorial for the victims, and her child was singled out for commemoration by naming a room after her at the offices of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. At the same time that other families were feeling passed over, Almon regretted not being able to move through her grief because of the pervasiveness of the image. "Every time I open a magazine, there it is," she told the Associated Press (p. 3). Similarly, the firefighter in the photograph, Captain Chris Fields, encountered some resentment from his equally heroic colleagues for all the attention he received.

Looking back, Almon appreciates the symbol that Baylee became for all the innocent victims of the tragedy, at the same time intensifying her own grief. In her official video-recording at the memorial she describes, "That photo took on its own life, which was horrible for me, because after a while I couldn't ever remember Baylee being alive." In the aftermath of the tragedy, the photograph made it worse, especially when Baylee's image turned up on pins, figurines, and T-shirts soon after the bombing. Everywhere, it seemed, she saw her baby's body being sold for profit. A sketch of the famous photo is now the logo of the Protecting People First Foundation, begun by a Rhode Island company that sells and installs shatter-resistant glass, but with her blessing as spokeswoman for the foundation and for a bill requiring the use of such glass in federal buildings. "I didn't mind using that image if it could save people's lives," she explained in 2000.

Almon never hid the tragic image from her other 2 children, born after Baylee's death, because she knew one day they would see it in a history book.

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