Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Passionate intensity

Did you follow the Amanda Knox appeal trial?

I didn't. I had heard of the situation after the first guilty verdict, and had wondered a little bit at the lack of concrete evidence linking Knox or her boyfriend to the crime, but other than that it wasn't a case I paid any attention to.

I'm often interested in high profile crime cases, an interest that comes from many places: my love of mystery fiction, my concern that too often people are convicted of crimes on rather flimsy evidence, my general, if deplorable, fascination with "celebrity" crime cases, and so on. But this one just didn't capture my interest, though I felt sorry both for the family of the victim and for anyone actually innocent caught up in the accusations (unless three people really did conspire to kill the victim, which never did seem all that likely to me), I just didn't follow the case all that much.

Which is why when yesterday's verdict of "not guilty" for Knox was announced, I had the opportunity to read various comments under the multiplicity of news articles without, for once, having formed strong opinions of my own; and from that perspective I was rather astonished by the fury with which people expressed their opinions about the case, the verdict, and Knox herself. One commenter would insist that Knox was an innocent girl caught up in a horrible nightmare; the next would insist with equal fervor that she was a monster who deserved to be jailed for life; and the conversation would quickly swirl out of control.

Had I followed the case and formed my own strong opinions, I'm sure I'd be just as swift to add them to the cacophony. But that realization made me pause--what, exactly, is with our level of passionate intensity about things we often know very little about, in reality?

The easy answer here is to blame the media. We're so conditioned to media messages, to advertising and marketing, to the fully-legal manipulation of our tastes, ideas, conclusions, etc. that we come to a story like the Knox case with preconceived notions; and whether we're going to see her as the injured innocent or the "she-devil" of a lurid murder case might, some would say, be a predetermined thing.

But I'm not sure that's the whole story. Couldn't it also be true that our tendency to form swift, somewhat illogical/irrational opinions on these sorts of things goes beyond such notions as media manipulation or confirmation bias, and says something deeper about our culture? Have we become, in effect, a culture that is easily subject to this new sort of "viral" experience, that turns seemingly ordinary people into a mob (not necessarily a flash mob, but a mob) at the slightest provocation?

I hope not, because that would probably have consequences reaching far beyond an unpleasant tendency to express loud and combative opinions about celebrity trials. But what do you think?


Siarlys Jenkins said...

Over twenty years ago, I read of a murder case in Alaska, which had gone to trial three times, with two hung juries. The horror of the crime was indisputable. The entire crew of a fishing vessel had been slaughtered on the boat. A former employee was charged. The third trial, he was acquitted. Leaving the court room, a man related to one of the deceased said "Someone ought to pay for this. I'm not saying it has to be , but someone ought to pay for it."

I think that is part of what is at work. Once there is a suspect, better, a defendant, people looking for someone to pay for the crime latch onto THAT person. Somehow we lose site of the fact that ONLY if the guilty party is the one paying the price, is there any semblance of justice. Graceless Nancy's unlamented show works off the same sort of measured hysteria.

When DuPage County had to pay compensation to the men falsely convicted and nearly executed for the rape and murder of Jeanette Nicarico, her sisters passionately opposed the payment at a county board meeting. They spoke as if it were a reward to be paid to the perpetrators, rather than to those falsely accused.

If Knox is in fact guilty, she may deserve life in prison. If she is not, she doesn't at all. In the absence of clear evidence, people are passionate about a huge maybe.

Alisha De Freitas said...

Interesting post, Erin. I didn't follow this trial too much, either. I kind of had a hazy idea of the major events, but I didn't give it my full attention. I also have a love of mystery (I just flashed back to a 2002 Detective Fiction course I took in college), the law and the legal system (I believe I've seen nearly every episode of "Law & Order" and "Homicide: Life on the Street".

I feel, since the O.J. Simpson trial, there has been an increasingly frightening level of tabloid coverage of certain cases. Jurors can become stars, judges gain fame, lawyers seek the spotlight, laws become fodder for the water cooler. And everyone is a pundit pouring over testimony like a play from Monday night Football. But behind the media glare, there are real people. People like the Kirchers who suffer with the loss of their sister and daughter. I imagine their pain must be searing under the hot lights of the world's cameras...

And there is no real life Jack McCoy to fight for them. Just perfectly lawful disorder.

Anonymous said...

I worry that now every murder has to be proved with DNA evidence. That can be a tall order. As far as the mob, I think it's just a dark side of human nature unfortunately, not really related to current times or media etc.

Ann Marie

Morris Howard said...

I feel, since the O.J. Simpson trial, there has been an increasingly frightening level of tabloid coverage of certain cases."

OJ Simpson? Try "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" more than a century ago.

John E said...

Have we become, in effect, a culture that is easily subject to this new sort of "viral" experience, that turns seemingly ordinary people into a mob (not necessarily a flash mob, but a mob) at the slightest provocation?

If anything, I'd say that US culture has become less likely to turn to mob violence than in times past - when is the last time you read about a US lynching?

Alisha De Freitas said...

@Morris, Okay. But what I was trying to get at was the modern 24 hour news cycle which really took off in the 1990's- Fox News, MSBC, Court TV. Around the same time, we saw the Internet begin to rise, so by the end of that decade, there were already 100 million users worldwide.

While none of the human reaction is new, the means used to spread and inflame is relatively so.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

There were a fair number of people on the street after the Caylee-Casey trial who seemed to intend lynching if they could get access. It is to the credit of the State of Florida that they didn't.

Anonymous said...

I am pretty sure that most of the people that heard the news stories about the accused also did not know the truth. They could get their panties in a wad all they wanted about whatever they felt, but it was clear to me that the case was not clear-cut, that many taking sides had jumped aboard for a perceived personal violation, and that only time will show the depth of the perpetrator's involvement in the murder. A woman was killed by someone. Is society free from fear of another killing by that same murderer? Is there justice for the victim?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

The Italian authorities established who had the knife in their hand and stabbed the deceased. That person is serving a long prison sentence.

The question is whether a couple of other people, who he began implicating when he needed to cut a deal, actually had anything at all to do with the killing.

I agree that most people taking loud public positions, for or against, were articulating biases of their own, and didn't really know or care about the facts.