It’s beginning to look like Bill Sparkman’s a martyr of the 2010 Census effort.

The website Talking Points Memo confirmed that the 2010 Census worker and teacher found dead in eastern Kentucky had the word “fed” scrawled on his chest. The local coroner says it looks like the word was written in felt tip marker.

What’s certain is that in our politically polarized moment, the Census count is no longer simply a routine exercise in democracy. It’s now part of the larger debate about government’s role in American life. Whatever the real circumstances behind Sparkman’s death, it’s generating a wide-ranging conversation about anti-government sentiment.

I think it’s still premature to connect Sparkman’s death in rural Clay County with right-wing opposition to the once-a-decade Census Bureau inventory of America’s population, as many online commentators have already done.

It’s true conservative TV and radio personalities have railed against the 2010 Census—as has Rep. Michele Bachmann, a conservative Republican congresswoman from Minnesota.

Rep. Bachmann said publicly she would not cooperate with the Census tally, expressing privacy concerns and complaining of its inclusion of non-citizen respondents.

But Sparkman worked in rural eastern Kentucky. It’s a very poor and troubled area of the country (Clay County has over 40% of the population living below the poverty line, and a median household income of just $21,000, according to 2007 Census data). It’s a region that doesn’t require broadcast media provocations, or a black president, to generate hostility toward the federal government, as a local’s blog post points out:

... this is an area where it wouldn’t be too hard to find fifty people living off the federal government and fifty people across the creek ready to shoot any DEA agent that stops to use the phone … What it’s NOT is about Glenn Beck, etc. I assure you few people of the sort who would kill a census worker are concerned with Mr. Beck.

However, since Sparkman was found with that word written on his chest, a rope around his neck, and his feet touching the ground (seeming to indicate he didn’t hang himself), it’s beginning to appear like he was killed, and that he was targeted precisely because of his links to the federal government.

That would make Sparkman the first Census Bureau worker killed on the job in recent memory. The 2010 Census will give us an indispensable portrayal of American society a decade into the new millennium. Is Sparkman’s death, and that word scrawled angrily on his chest, an early glimpse into our society’s dark side?