To save a wall and understand killers’ motives

Leopold (top) and Loeb (bottom)
Leopold (top) and Loeb (bottom) Wikimedia Commons

Former Newsweek foreign correspondent Brook Larmer lived in China for some seven years before moving to Bangkok in 2006, and he had crisscrossed the Great Wall on a number of occasions. "It's not just a structure but a living organism," he says. "It may have been 364 years since the wall served any kind of military function, but its meaning and the way it's defined both in China and abroad continue to evolve."

Reporting "Up Against the Wall", Larmer began with an extended hike along what is known as the "wild wall" in Hebei Province, to which he was drawn by news of a man whose family has lived close to the structure for hundreds of years and who is determined to preserve it. He then went to the steppes of western China, where he found a more austere wall made out of earth instead of stones. Both sections are under threat by the forces of nature and development. "When you travel along the wall," says Larmer, "you realize how vulnerable it is. It's the greatest cultural preservation challenge in the world. You have so many different kinds of wall that are needing preservation and so many that require very different approaches. And when you go look at it close up and see entire stretches of it that have basically disappeared, you realize that they are gone forever. They cannot be recovered. You just hope that this network of civil society that is starting to coalesce will do so quickly enough to protect what remains."

Simon Baatz, author of "Criminal Minds", teaches history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. On a visit to London in the 1990s, Baatz killed a free afternoon by going to see Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, a movie loosely based on the 1924 murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by teenagers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Intrigued, Baatz discovered that nobody had written an authoritative history of the case. He also discovered that psychiatry played an important role in the trial: "I think you can say that my background in the history of science made me see something in the Leopold and Loeb case that other people hadn't."

To many at the time, the case was seen as evidence that America had lost its bearings. "Think about it," Baatz says. "Two clever, rich teenagers having this love affair, going out and killing a 14-year-old literally for the thrill of it, for the sensation of killing someone else. That was seen as so corrupt and decadent. It was seen as a signal to many people that there was something perverse about American society. It's very difficult, really, to understand it. Even now, I wouldn't claim that I understand why they did it."

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