Two themes seemed to have emerged with the whole "balloon boy" incident: The American obsession with celebrity, no matter what it takes to achieve it, and the contagion of awful parenting.

Two themes seemed to have emerged with the whole "balloon boy" incident: The American obsession with celebrity, no matter what it takes to achieve it, and the contagion of awful parenting.


In case you were lost at sea and didn't hear about it, America sat riveted for a few hours last week following a homemade helium balloon shaped like a flying saucer on their TV screens as it covered some 60 miles of Colorado airspace with a 6-year-old boy, Falcon Heene of Fort Collins, Colo., believed to be trapped inside. Fortunately, he wasn't, as he'd been hiding in a box in an attic at home all along.


Unfortunately, search-and-rescue personnel weren't aware of that, as they gave frantic pursuit - on foot, on horseback, on fire trucks, in helicopters. At one point there was talk of shooting the balloon down.


Police now say the whole thing was a hoax perpetrated by the parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, who allegedly were hoping to land a reality TV gig because of the stunt. Criminal charges may be filed against them. The Heenes have denied that they tried to mislead anyone. We suppose their defense will be that kids say the darndest things, as Falcon did when he said to his folks during a CNN interview, "You guys said that, um, we did this for the show."


No doubt some will chalk this off to just entertainment, no harm, no foul.


To the contrary, the potential dangers and downfalls for all involved should be clear to anyone with half a brain.


First, taxpayers are out a fair amount of money as public safety personnel from multiple Colorado counties, the National Guard, the Colorado State Patrol, the U.S. Forest Service, etc., responded. Should the Heenes be prosecuted and ultimately convicted, they ought to be billed.


Second, what if some public safety person had been hurt trying to rescue the kid who wasn't there? People who engage in these things frequently don't think them through, but these rescue personnel often put themselves at risk in trying to save somebody else. Try explaining that to a surviving spouse.


Third, if the allegation of a hoax is true, the Heenes have done a number on an American public skeptical enough of everything and everyone as it is. They and public safety officials may be less likely to respond as quickly to the next crisis, which might be real.


Fourth, and again, if the Heenes concocted this whole thing, it's fair to wonder what kind of parents they are and what kind of role modeling they're doing in front of their children. To crave attention this much can't be healthy.


Hoaxes are hardly new, of course, but with 24-7 media in an Internet world, arguably it's easier to take the gullible for a ride than it ever has been. Indeed, it's hard to know what's real anymore. Almost anything can be manipulated with Photoshop. Politicians spin - why use the words "tax increase" when "revenue enhancement" would do just as well? Too many Americans can't distinguish fame from infamy. Rod Blagojevich gets indicted and he ends up on "The Apprentice," where no doubt he'll try to elicit sympathy for his plight, and some will actually buy it.


This episode is a perfect fit for today's trust-no-one, everything's-a-conspiracy climate. We dislike generalizations, but between the Obama birthers and those who believe George W. Bush orchestrated Sept. 11 and the Heenes allegedly exploiting their own children for personal gain, sometimes the whole culture seems crazy.


What possesses some people? Is the attention worth it? We'd like to think it's not, and this may present an opportunity to prove it.


Peoria Journal Star