Folks Next Door Unravel Before Us

COMMENT

January 15, 1995|By KEVIN THOMAS

From her picture in the newspaper, Shirley Scott Harney peers out at us, smiling pleasantly with no apparent care in the world.

There are no clues in her expression. No signs of a troubled marriage, the break-up or whatever preceded it. There is only her almost serene and smiling face.

What is so haunting about the picture is not whatever was on her mind at the time, of course, but what has happened since.

I, and I'm sure many others, have been drawn to the picture in the same way we scan articles and watch the news for anything that could explain why a 40-year-old suburban housewife would be shot in the head inside her home, then run over by a car in her driveway and left for dead.

Her estranged husband, Daniel Scott Harney, 40, of Owings Mills, has been charged with her Dec. 26 murder. He was returned to Maryland from Charlotte, where he had traveled with the Harneys' young sons.

Potential evidence continues to trickle in as if out of a made-for-TV movie. Neighbors found the Harneys aloof. Occasionally, they would hear loud arguments coming from their Ellicott City home. Mr. Harney used to be seen playing ball with his two sons in the front yard, but in recent weeks was not around. Another man had apparently taken his place. But couples splitting up isn't unusual anymore.

In our desperate need to reassure ourselves that the same kind of tragedy could not befall us, we continue scanning for circumstances that made this couple unique, that made this situation different.

Shortly after the murder, Mr. Harney appeared to flee the state with his sons. At first, he may have gone to Florida, where an eyewitnesses says he took the kids to Disney World. Later, after he was profiled on the television show, "America's Most Wanted," he was spotted in North Carolina and arrested. He asked a judge to allow him to attend his wife's funeral. The request was denied.

At the same time, reports surfaced that Mr. Harney may have been taking Prozac at the time of the murder. Some believe that the powerful anti-depressant can cause mood swings, even violence in those who use it.

Is that the answer? We don't know. Perhaps we never will, or never should.

It seems foolish to try understand anything as horrible as murder. The media fuels our desire to know more, but toward what end?

Are we looking for ways to keep such things from recurring in the future? That would be the best that could come from this.

Or, are we simply mired in fascination with others' lives? Television tabloid and talk shows have mined a vein of meddlesomeness in our culture that appears to know no limits.

Suburban alienation also contributes to our confusion when these things occur. People no longer know their neighbors. Community seems more a function of geography than a connection to people.

We long for a time we're not even sure ever existed, when neighbors knew neighbors, children were everyone's responsibility and people helped each other.

Of course, shows from the picket-fence era such as "Peyton Place" suggest those times were not as idyllic as we remember, although we seem to have a heap more trouble now than then.

Now, we find ourselves increasingly talking about dysfunctional families and mitigating circumstances and spousal abuse.

We are becoming inured to violence even as we are ever mesmerized by it.

Like the Harney murder, the O.J. Simpson case on a national stage rivets us as if it will someday reveal something that we hadn't considered, and that this revelation will transform us for the better.

And yet, for all our searching for clues and answers, for all the talk that the Simpson case unfolding in Los Angeles would heighten awareness about and sensitivity to spousal abuse, we don't seem any closer to what we really need.

Our optimism says that, perhaps, some things will change. Spousal abuse will become intolerable. People will become more sensitive to their neighbors' problems. Maybe Prozac will be banned.

And yet I suspect we know that some things may never change.

Tragic events will continue to occur and we will fail at our attempts to make sense of them. We try to make sense of our existence, and the mysteries of life continue to elude us.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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