Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mass Hysteria and the Casey Anthony Verdict

Every once in awhile, the U.S. is gripped by mass insanity. Reason and logic disappear. Hysteria takes over. Media sharks circle sensing ratings glory, more ad dollars and bigger salaries at contract renewal time. Politicians stick their fingers into the wind and jump, looking for any leverage in the endless election cycle.

We’re going through this right now with the Casey Anthony verdict.

A horrible thing happened: a child died in some inexplicable but undoubtedly unnatural way. The mother’s behavior was at the least cold, calculating and grossly negligent; at the worst it was criminal. The jury deliberated and found her not guilty of the major charges (a far less surprising verdict than the public outcry would suggest given that the prosecutor himself concedes that without a cause of death, conviction was very difficult).

People are outraged – but why about this one particular incident? This happens all the time. Just do a quick Google search:
  • Just today, a 28-year-old West Virginia man was charged with death of a child by a parent. His one-year-old son died on March 13 from a head injury. After changing his story several times, the father claimed the boy’s head hit the door frame as he carried him into the bedroom. The medical examiner determined that the boy had died from an abusive closed head injury.
  • Yesterday, a 28-year-old North Carolina woman was charged with murdering her five-year-old daughter in 2009, as well as a host of sickening sexual charges. She allegedly tried to sell the little girl into prostitution.
  • Also yesterday, a Georgia grand jury indicted a 24-year-old woman and her 22-year-old boyfriend in the murder of the woman’s 18-month-old daughter Kaylee. (Note the name!)
This doesn’t even include a whole series of children who died in hot cars, nor the 50 people who died in homicides or the 93 who died in car accidents, if yesterday was at all an average day.

This is not to play into the vast national industry that feeds on our irrational fears. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of people go about their days without incident – and that far more people die from preventable causes than from these sensationalist homicides, which remain an aberration from any statistical perspective.

It is to ask, however, whether we’ll hear any more about any of these cases, at least on a national level. Unless any of the above cases feature a very cute white baby and an attractive young mother with a questionable and seamy background, I highly doubt it. These cases don’t sell newspapers or make people want to watch TV. They don’t lend themselves to the shallow, sensationalistic, race to the lowest common denominator culture we’ve created.

There are real issues behind these numbers – vital concerns of poverty, abuse, addiction, parental neglect and violence we need to address. But as long as we’re distracted by the sickening drivel of people like Nancy Grace and her ilk, we’ll remain opiated, obsessed with the wrong issues, unable to comprehend the big picture and start the dialogue necessary to solve real problems.

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