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It’s Been a Year Since Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself

What 2019’s darkest meme told us about the catastrophes to come

A year ago today, my girlfriend Maddie and I were visiting friends and family in the Bay Area. It was a Saturday, and, as always, she’d woken up first. When I began to stir in bed, she grasped my shoulder and dramatically whispered these words: “Jeffrey Epstein has been found dead.”

I groaned.

Like so many others, we’d closely followed the case of the notorious pedophile in the month since his arrest for sex trafficking. Everything publicly known suggested that Epstein was the man at the center of a vast criminal network that allowed the rich and powerful to abuse young women and girls with impunity. That he’d perished in federal custody — no matter the how or why of it — meant that a crucial avenue of investigation was forever closed. This fact, combined with the rank negligence and dysfunction of the carceral system that allowed his apparent death by suicide, brought forth a mantra-like meme: “Epstein didn’t kill himself,” people started saying.

Last fall, I wrote about how that phrase had kept Epstein’s name (and the consensus that many others were complicit in his empire) trending in the news, even as authorities seemed inclined to move on. Today, there is little concern that the saga may be forgotten, as Epstein and his victims are the subject of many true crime documentaries and podcasts, his alleged con-conspirator Ghislaine Maxwell faces trial in 2021 and the likes of Alan Dershowitz, Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew have been further implicated. Julie K. Brown, the Miami Herald investigative journalist who has done more than any reporter to expose Epstein and his associates, continues to unravel the story. Epstein himself is now little more than a name, a face and a haunting presence. Our focus has turned to survivors — and to the others responsible.

If “Epstein didn’t kill himself” prefigured anything about 2020, it may have been the vacuum of accountability in these United States. We have city mayors who let their police departments run violent and wild. An establishment Democratic candidate for president who deliberately does not campaign and an incumbent chief executive who says, of a thousand Americans dying from coronavirus each day, “It is what it is.” More than hinting at the sophisticated coordination of elite overlords, “Epstein didn’t kill himself” set the tone for a lethal reality in which no one is in charge, so nobody will accept blame, and death is our ambience, the symptom of comprehensive decay. Assassination or not, his demise was a thing allowed to happen. Everyone was a bystander.

The slogans of this year’s demonstrations exhort us to at least not look away. To say the names of those killed, and that we know the killers for what they truly are. It is a promise that whatever happens, and however helpless we feel about it, we won’t forget. At a moment of great upheaval and untruth, memory is radical. The physical circumstances of Epstein’s death hold little continued interest — you can believe what you like — but the corrupt indifference that kept his accusers from seeing him in court is more important than ever. We cannot forget it, because we confront this failure in every aspect of the ongoing American disaster, from the botched pandemic response to brutally repressive cops to an opposition party that tweets their shock and outrage while begging for fatal compromise.

If and when we are cut down in this chaos, we are held liable for our own extermination. But it is not suicide to be left to die by the state.