At year's end news organizations like to mark time by doing such things as selecting, and commenting upon, the year's top stories. Some, like Time magazine, vote for a person of the year, as it did in selecting Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, as ther 2010 Person of the Year. The New Haven Register, by contrast, selected a crime victim as this year's most notable person: It is an odd and troubling choice.
The 2007 slaying of a mother and her two children in Cheshire, Connecticut, has become a part of the national psychic landscape, and last year's trial of one of the assailants, Steven Hayes, transformed New Haven, the site of the trial, into a media mecca. Reporters lined up hours before the trial began to claim one of the seats reserved for the press. Television cameras hovered outside the courthouse for daily shots of the dramatis personae. The star of all this was the sole survivor of the home invasion, Dr. William Petit, Jr., who succumbed to the national mania to make icons of victims by submitting to an interview on the Oprah Winfrey show. Dr. Petit is the Regislter's person of the year.
The distance between Mark Zuckerberg and William Petit may not be all that great. Both aspired to teach us to see in different ways. Zuckerberg's Facebook connects strangers by means of the social media networking, something new under the Sun. Dr. Petit wants us to behold the transforming message of love, a force and message as old as the message that God is love. But Dr. Petit came by his heroic stature by accident; he had the mixed fortune of surviving the assault that resulted in the slaughter of his family. His struggle with survivor's guilt makes him less a profile of everyman, than a man every man pities.
In the wake of his family's death, Dr. Petit set up a foundation to honor their memory. The foundation has raised $1.8 million in charitable contributions. It honors the memory of his wife and daughters by contributing to the things they appreciated and valued: it has helped to eduacte young women in the sciences, has assisted those suffering from chronic illness, and has come to the aid of those suffering from the effects of domestic violence. These are worthy goals.
"We must be the change we wish to see in the world," Dr. Petit told a reporter. The word;s are those of Mohandas Ghandi. But Dr. Petit did not look much like Gandhi during the past few years, as he stalked the state in pursuit of the death penalty for Steven Hayes, who was duly tried and sentenced to death this year. I suspect the doctor will be as persistent in his pursuit of the death of Joshua Komisarjevsky, who will be tried in 2011. There is something un-Ghandilike in this atavistic death vigil. Indeed, blood lust and revenge are old and primitive emotions. Serving them hardly bespeaks becoming the sort of change we envision; it is rather, a retrograde celebration of the very sort of primitive sludge that set Hayes and Komisarjevsky on their bloody rampage. Forgive me for not celebrating this return to the cave.
Lawmakers in Connecticut voted to repeal the death penalty last year. But N. Jodi Rell vetoed that legislation. When she did so, she cited the horror of the Cheshire case as a reason for state-killing. Death penalty opponents sighed in despair. Connecticut was poised to join her neighbors who have put aside killing as a form of justice. The United States remains alone among democratic nations as a killer of its own people.
But Dr. Petit became the change he wanted to see in the world. He lobbied for death. The wonder of it all is that he persuaded so many.
It is an ancient maxim in the law that no one can be a judge in his own case. The passions rub too raw when our own interests are affected. We have banned private prosecution, eliminated the posse, and set up a professional criminal justice system to attempt to put some distance between the claims of reason and the cries of passion. The victims' rights movement seeks to push the pendulum back to the old days of the hue and cry. Those undone by sorrow are no longer content with our care, tender regard and support. They now behave as though they are entitled to revenge, and the fight is on to persuade the rest of us to let them have it.
I wonder about a society that takes its moral bearings from the most injured among us. Dr. Petit's cry is the roar of rage and sorrow that comes of a wound deeper than I can comprehend. If ever a man was undone by grief, I suspect it is he. But for all he is suffered, I do not believe we owe him or his family a death or two. Just how did the most injured among us become a hero? What does it say about us that what inspires is rage?
It did not suprise me to learn that Dr. Petit found his way to Oprah. Or, really, that a local newspaper would name him person of the year. There is a hunger for emotion in the world that victims and pity fills, if only for a passing moment. But I worry, really, about a culture that transformed emotionally damaged people into today's matinee idols.
Mark Zuckerberg taught us to see one another and ourselves in new and creative ways. Dr. Petit draped new rhetoric over ancient emotions and taught us simply that displacement of rage can tap something deep within us all. Five years from now, we will still be sorting out what social networking means. Dr. Petit, however, will be long forgotten, replaced by the other victims of other horrors in our seemingly insatiable quest for new outrages over which we can tongue-cluck in unison. The Register's decision to name him person of the year for 2010 looks an awful lot like surrendering to the lowest common denominator. Call 2010 a depressing sort of year.