Odds are you have an opinion about whether Jodi Arias should live or die. You probably also know all about Florida’s prosecution of Casey Anthony. The Boston Marathon bombing is an open wound in New England; you most likely have strong feelings about the man accused of helping set the bombs, Dzhokar Tsarnaev.
But what do you think about the Mother’s Day massacre in New Orleans this year?
Say what? New Orleans?
A gunman or gunmen opened fire on folks celebrating Mother’s Day in the city’s 7th Ward. Three suspects fled the scene. One was captured on film, arm extended, firing away into a parade. He appears to be holding a gun. One person falls to the ground. Nineteen people were injured in the shootings.
Who was responsible for this act of terror?
All but a few of you are reading about this for the first time, wondering how you missed the news. Don’t feel bad. There wasn’t much news. This shooting didn’t make the grade separating high-profile crimes from the run-of-the mill mayhem that constitutes the docket in most criminal courts.
What makes a crime high profile?
I have a theory that will displease many of you: We enjoy the high-profile case because, in most cases, we identify with the accused.
Consider the Casey Anthony case. You will recall that she is the young Florida mother accused of killing her toddler, Cayley. Florida sought the death penalty in this murder prosecution. Spectators flocked to the courtroom, and the case became a staple of the chattering commentators. She was acquitted, to the rage of many.
Why the interest in this case?
The politically correct answer is because Cayley was murdered. It was horrible. But there were an average of 42 murders per day in the United States in 2008, the year Cayley died; 1,168 folks were murdered in Florida alone. There were 1,494 murders of children under the age of 18 in 2008 in the United States. We voyeurs of crime know nothing about almost all of these other cases.
What made Cayley’s death different?
Her mother was accused of killing her. Her mother was an attractive young woman. And her mother was white. Casey could have been your neighbor, your daughter, even you.
My hunch is that we love to hate Casey not just because we think she killed, but because almost all young parents look back with exhausted nostalgia at the days before their child’s birth. The fact is, there are two classes of adults. Those with kids, and those without them. All new parents struggle with exhaustion and the overwhelming sense that they’ve signed on to a new, and seemingly endless, way of life.
We hate Casey because we think she dared to do what we wish we could do: She walked backward in time, recovering the days she was childless and carefree.
Am I suggesting we want to kill our children? Of course not.
Fortunately, almost no one does that. But I am suggesting that we care about the allegations against Casey not out of regard for Cayley — name three other kids murdered that year — but because Casey dared break a taboo the rest of us honor: We love and nurture our children. The accusation she killed hers mocked our fidelity. We hate her because she acted in a way we might identify with, if only unconsciously.
Oh, I see the heads shaking out there. “Is he crazy?” you wonder.
Try this case on for size: Why do you have an opinion about Jodi Arias?
The Arizona woman was convicted of murdering her lover. She shot him in the head, stabbed him some 30 times and almost decapitated him. Why? He was going to leave her for another woman. This is hardly national news. Murderous jealousy is as close as the nearest courthouse.
Consider: Jodi is young. She is attractive. She is white. She could be your neighbor, your daughter, you. What process of identification with Jodi explains the public fascination with her case?
If you’ve never harbored lethal rage against a lover you are either asexual or under the age of 16. Almost everyone else has suffered heartbreak in love. And if you’ve not experienced it yourself, then head to your local family court for a look at curdled love. There’s a reason courthouse staffers fear family court in a way they do not fear criminal court: divorce yields wild rage.
I suspect some folks root for Jodi but, given the savagery of her crimes, won’t admit it. “Serves him right” seems a little callous in this case. Others, however, resent the fact that Jodi did what they wish they could do. She broke a taboo. If she got away with this crime then our restraint is mocked, and mockery burns like hellfire.
I’ll concede this neo-Freudian explanation is a reach. At a minimum, we value self-control, and fear the loss of it. But still the phenomenon remains: We regard some criminal trials with rapt fascination, ignoring the overwhelming majority of cases.
Readers of color will feel slighted at this point. I made a point of observing in both the Anthony and Arias cases that the defendants are white. That made them potential daughters, at least to the likes of me.
Race matters a great deal in whether a case becomes high-profile. Few murders of African Americans capture the nation’s imagination, unless, of course, the victim had already stolen a place in our hearts, as did, for example, Martin Luther King Jr.
Thus, another variable in the equation defining a high-profile case: The victim must be one the media will fall in love with. The media just doesn’t warm to the task of telling the tales of black crime victims.
That’s why you never heard about this year’s Mother’s Day massacre. The young man on film shooting into the crowd was black. So were the victims. The shootings took place in a distressed and impoverished inner-city area. Nothing there for the media to peddle to the white world; nothing for most of us to identify with. It was very much unlike the Boston Marathon bombing.