For a boy in Alabama, the celebration of his sixth birthday will have more meaning than most people can imagine.
For a week, the Midland City, Ala., boy, known only as Ethan in news reports, was the victim of a 65-year-old abductor who was already a murderer.
On Tuesday, law enforcement officers raided the underground bunker where Jimmy Lee Dykes was holding Ethan after Dykes shot and killed school bus driver Charles Albert Poland, 66, and kidnapped Ethan, apparently at random. Fearing that negotiations with the deranged Dykes were failing and that Ethan was in imminent danger, law enforcement went in.
Dykes was shot and killed by the officers.
Ethan was rescued.
And today, Ethan is 6 years old.
It has been a harrowing time for the boy and his family, who have been the subject of the thoughts and prayers of an untold number of Americans who watched the situation as it dragged on, concerned whether Ethan would be reunited with those who love him.
According to news reports, there was clear evidence that Dykes was dangerously unstable. He was known to patrol his property at night with a shotgun and flashlight. His behavior toward a neighbor resulted in a menacing charge being lodged against him. On Jan. 29, the day before he was to answer the charge in court, Dykes boarded the school bus carrying more than 20 students, including Ethan, and demanded that Poland surrender one of the children to him. When Poland refused, Dykes killed him, shooting the driver four times with a 9 mm pistol. Then Dykes grabbed Ethan and took him to an underground bunker he had constructed.
Officials, hoping to have an ending with no more bloodshed, attempted to hear Dykes out, but also prepared for the raid that eventually occurred. Using a camera they had managed to get into the bunker, officials moved to rescue Ethan when Dykes, who had been sleeping well and taking care of the child, began to get agitated, ignored Ethan and started carrying a gun.
With the heightened focus on gun control laws in our country, this will no doubt become another example that is referred to by those on both sides. Proponents of gun control will say it points to the need for more restrictions, while those who oppose more gun control will point out that neither a ban on assault-style weapons nor a 10-bullet limit on gun clips would have averted this situation.
What might have helped, however, is better mental health care in the United States. Dykes had already presented signals that he was a danger as evidenced by the menacing charge he faced. His behavior was certainly suspect in his nocturnal armed patrols of his property. Earlier intervention and effective treatment might have saved two lives and prevented a third from being placed in jeopardy.
But at least Poland’s heroic sacrifice was not in vain. Ethan survived the ordeal and his family was reunited. Dykes will not be a threat to other innocent children.
We hope that Ethan and his family are able to cope with his traumatic experience. And we can also hope that Ethan has a happy birthday today, and many more.