Runaway country

Posted: May 04, 2005 12:00 AM

When the feds quickly announce they won't press charges against runaway-bride Jennifer Wilbanks, 32, when the Albuquerque police chief discusses the "stress that she's been through" and law enforcement in Georgia is still noodling over whether to prosecute her for staging a kidnapping that didn't happen, you know you live in a country where actions mean nothing.
Don't get me wrong: There have been serious consequences to Wilbanks' apparently premeditated hoax -- she bought her bus ticket a week before running off, and left behind her keys, wallet and ring, which made her disappearance look like a kidnapping, or worse. Many suspected that Wilbanks' fiance, John Mason, had killed her. Cable TV news reporters were happy to inform viewers that Mason had not agreed to a police polygraph. In such an atmosphere, some vigilante could have hurt Mason. Then there was the nightmare endured by terrified family members and friends.

 The mayor of Duluth, Ga., estimates that Wilbanks' faux kidnapping and solo honeymoon in Vegas cost taxpayers some $60,000 for personnel. Now, if there is a real kidnapping, concerned neighbors may be less likely to join the search.

  Worst of all, her phony alibi was unconscionable. Wilbanks' tall tale -- that she was kidnapped by an armed "Hispanic man" and white woman in a blue van -- smeared and brought suspicion to Latinos, Latino-white couples and even blue van owners.

 The outrage isn't that Wilbanks skipped out of her 600-guest, 14-bridesmaid and eight-bridal-shower wedding. (I should care? I didn't pay for it.)

 The outrage is her apparent effort to report a false abduction. Backing out of a wedding -- that's between two people. Staging a kidnapping -- where government agents and citizens join the search -- is America's business.

 Jilted fiance Mason told Fox News' Sean Hannity that Wilbanks' guilt "has got to be consequence enough for me." Mason also said Wilbanks is "a victim here, as well." And, "Haven't we all made mistakes?"

 After the hoax came to light, the minister who was to have presided over the wedding, the Rev. Alan Jones, told CNN: "John said 'everybody has a right to make a mistake.' He said ,'The Bible calls that sin.' He said: 'The Bible also says every time we sin, we crucify Christ anew. And Christ forgives us, and that's what grace is all about.'"

 Maybe Mason is in shock and doesn't really know what he is saying. But when other people, who aren't in his sorry shoes, are saying the same thing, his excuses warrant a response.

 I don't know why, but this nonsensical understanding of forgiveness -- as if it should be given instantly, regardless of circumstances -- seems to be popular among a growing faction of Americans, on the left and the right, who are caught up in a mania for forgiving.

 They don't get it. Forgive and forget are not synonyms. Forgiveness is not something that should be granted automatically. You forgive people after they've admitted to what they did wrong and apologized.

 Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Carter Brank told The Associated Press that Wilbanks "was somewhat remorseful," but she "didn't come right out and apologize."

 Or you forgive after time has elapsed and you choose to set aside your anger. You can forgive without making excuses. Note to Mason: You can forgive your fiance, but that doesn't mean you still have to marry her. Besides, the wannabe groom's comments don't speak of forgiveness. They suggest a clear unwillingness to confront the fact that an adult woman who would plan and carry out such a hoax, and subject her parents and fiance to such terror and suspicion, is utterly devoid of character.

 (It's odd how the left sees the devout as being harsh and inflexible, yet here Mason and his spiritual mentors are dismissing this cruel act as a simple mistake, almost as if it were beyond the hapless Wilbanks' control. People I talk to in San Francisco are appalled at Wilbanks' stunt, while Duluth's good Christian gentlemen shrug that Wilbanks needs "treatment," as Mason told Hannity, "for lack of a better word.")

 There is one other explanation: Wilbanks is mentally ill. Although her friends and family say she is not. If she is not mentally ill, she should face greater consequences than her dubious sense of guilt.

 The runaway bride's father, Harris Wilbanks, told Hannity that his daughter needs "some space and some time." I agree. In fact, I would like to see Wilbanks get that space and time -- as long as the space is a cot in a jail cell and the time is spent reflecting behind bars.