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(photo credit: Channel 2)
In a country constantly dealing with wars, terrorism, the Iranian nuclear threat, chronically corrupt ministers and unstable governments, it's seldom that a simple story of crime and law enforcement dominates the headlines for an entire week, eclipsing matters such as the ceasefire in Gaza and the prime minister's new diplomatic initiative. It should not be surprising, then, that the media doesn't really know how to handle the Benny Sela case.
Instead of dealing with the question of the broader significance of a single serial rapist on the loose, the press has turned the Sela escape into a sensationalist panic-fest.
To be sure, the pain and anguish of Sela's victims are only too real - as is the concern that other women are now in danger of falling prey to his monstrosities. But the reporters roaming the streets of Tel Aviv this week, interviewing women about their fears relating to the case, were more pathetic than sympathetic.
Opening the daily papers or listening to the ongoing broadcasts, one would think that Sela was the only rapist out there waiting to pounce on his next victim. The cruel fact is, however, that there are hundreds of others lurking in the shadows, and that one more doesn't constitute an automatic rise in the danger level. Nevertheless, short of advocating a nation-wide curfew from dusk to dawn - or keeping the entire female population under lock and key - the press has suggested almost everything.
Broadcasting live from a police station parking lot, Channel 2 anchor Gadi Sukenik provided an unwitting parody of the stern-faced reporters appearing live from the Lebanon border four months ago: full of drama, but with no more added information value than if they had been sitting in their TV studios in the center of the country.
THEN THERE'S the "field day" they're having at the police's expense. Not that the Israel Police deserves any consideration, after its ineptitude in allowing Sela to escape; nor has it been very effective otherwise lately. In other words, that the police is in need of a long overdue shake-up is moot.
But the vicious tone of criticism from the likes of Yediot Aharonot's Buki Naeh - whose relentless attacks on the "boys in blue" reek of settling old accounts - is obscuring the real issue. As is the fact that a policeman can't even stop for a bite to eat without having his photograph appear in the following day's paper to show that he is some lazy Keystone cop with time to waste, while a dangerous fugitive is on the run.
This portrayal of the police serves Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter well. For months, Dichter has been looking for a way to get rid of Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi. And the media has now set the stage for Karadi's imminent dismissal. (Perhaps Karadi deserves to lose his job for a host of reasons, but the foul-up of a few junior officers in an obscure department isn't one of them.)
There is an even darker side to the demonization of the police force, though. Both the media and the public have limited imaginations. In the "instant imagery" world in which they live, there is room for only one bad guy. And, as preposterous is this may sound, the more foolish the police is made to look, the greater the unconscious admiration for Sela's managing to hoodwink the body charged with capturing him becomes.
It's not yet entirely clear whether the escape was premeditated - whether the court summons to a session that wasn't supposed to take place was merely erroneous or somehow manufactured by Sela; or whether Sela was wearing civilian clothes under his prisoner's uniform and/or aided by collaborators from within or without the prison; or whether the officers who were supposed to be guarding him were taking a nap, going to the bathroom or just looking the other way.
The more that additional details, versions and rumors are published, the more they serve to create an image of a sophisticated felon constantly outwitting the bumbling police. That's the way folk heroes like Jesse James are created.
Lest one imagine that there's no way for a twisted rapist to achieve popularity, all he need do is eavesdrop at the office water cooler or neighborhood coffee shop, where Sela's name is bandied about incessantly with a kind of awe.
For obvious reasons, Sela's victims haven't been giving interviews and volunteering the awful details of his deeds. So, instead, the public has been fed a constant diet of jail-break stories and theories on why the police are still clueless. On Wednesday morning, Army Radio's Razi Barkai referred to him as "Benny" - clearly unaware of how affectionate it sounded. Barkai said this while interviewing Channel 10's Motti Kirshenbaum, and the two were fantasizing about how wonderful it would have been had Sela been captured right at the beginning of their respective shows. "In the end, it will turn out that Sela already promised his exclusive interview to [Channel 2's] Yair Lapid," joked Kirshenbaum.
Just like that, in the space of a week, Benny Sela has gone from being the scum of the earth to a sought-after media star.