I imagine myself walking through the charred, smoking remains of a home, sifting through the blackened bits of wood, fabric and broken glass. The lingering heat and haze causes me to squint, but I somehow keep myself from stumbling over the shapes of two small bodies which suddenly materialize out of the sooty, heat-warped air. As I kneel on the burnt floor, I am consciously aware of a part of myself that is usually still – an inner shield forged by the paternal instinct to protect the innocent. That part of me cracks open.
This is the legacy of Josh Powell. This nightmarish scene, reminiscent of Shakespearean tragedy, is liable to haunt anyone who dwells on the atrocity that was the culmination of the Powell family saga. As parents, as members of the community, as caring humans, our spirits are all susceptible to the dark and horrible images which are the result of the murders of Charlie and Braden Powell by their father, Josh Powell.
Josh Powell left a great deal of wreckage. Utah police detectives continue to work the case of Powell’s missing wife, Susan Powell; arson investigators are tracing the path of the accelerants Powell used to burn down the rental home in Graham; civil courts, Child Protective Services, contract foster care, law firms, and many other private and public entities continue to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort compiling records and accounting for the actions of their respective agents. Pointing the finger of blame will probably not wait for the smoke to clear.
Powell’s deeds, however, were his alone. In the glaring light of hindsight, we have the luxury of comparing his truculent denials of wrongdoing, “I would never hurt my wife or children,” with the vivid footage of the home he torched around himself and his innocent boys, Charlie and Braden. In the two year saga following Susan Powell’s disappearance, there did not seem to be any glaring misstep on the part of judges, caregivers or any other agency or individual responsible for the well-being of the children. Our system of laws recognize parental rights, while only barely acknowledging our human capacity for evil. Our capacity to see the best in people, to forgive, and to give second chances is inherent in our nature and acknowledged in our courts.
Unfortunately, this also allows sociopaths – the term which will now forever be linked to Josh Powell – to get the drop on us. The narcissistic nature of individuals like Powell, evident in his words, “I can’t live without my boys,” is a lens through which others are only relevant by their importance to the observer. In Powell’s corrupt view, a decision to end his life meant a de facto death for his sons.
Those of us not living in such a distorted reality recognize and accept the necessity to protect children, especially one’s own offspring. The male psyche and physique, shaped by genetics and society, is ideally suited to that role. For this reason, news of a father (or mother) perishing while saving the life of a child is at once both heartbreaking and gratifying. In contrast, the notion of a man killing his children – and in such violent fashion – is profoundly wrong.
So we might as well say it out loud: “Powell was a murderer and a liar, and we were unable to protect his children.” As a community of cops, firefighters, prosecutors, child advocates, friends and family, we were unable save Powell’s family (the question of whether he killed his wife, Susan, suddenly seems moot). It hurts to acknowledge, but it is necessary. We need to face the truth that the battle against the corruption of domestic violence requires our constant attention and determined efforts. It is a battlefront with almost invisible boundaries, with a frontline behind the closed door of a family’s threshold.
Josh Powell was a liar. His crimes were unnatural. It is no shame that we were unable to recognize, much less imagine, his selfish capacity for violence. Such an act requires the pen of Shakespeare to speak for Powell:
“My offense is rank, it smells to heaven.”