I was late to develop an interest in the Casey Anthony case in Florida. A jury deliberates today on whether she murdered her toddler. If she is found guilty, she faces the death penalty. The case is a long way from the jurisdiction I call home. I have no dog in the fight.
What caught my eye was the fighting outside of the courtroom among folks clamoring for a ringside seat at the trial. The New York Times reported that people were taking vacation time to go and to sit in the room to watch the proceedings. Clearly, this trial strikes a popular nerve.
The State of Florida accused the twenty-something mother of killing her own child so that she could resume the carefree life of the young and beautiful. Rather than spending her days and nights attending to the needs of her child, Ms. Anthony is accused of preferring club-hopping and the cheap and easy thrills of a party-goer’s life. Ms. Anthony, by contrast, claims her child died accidently, that she drowned in the pool of her grandparents. Casey’s father, a former cop, helped dispose of the body. Casey claims to be afraid of her father, given his penchant for abusing her as a child.
This is lurid tabloid stuff. But why has the case captured the attention of the nation? After all, on the docket of every state in the nation are sad cases of children abused and/or killed. Tales of irresponsible mothers, abusing fathers, and the tangled webs they weave are common.
If helps, of course, that Casey is photogenic, and that Florida permits cameras in the courtroom, and event that surely helped turned the trial into a kleig-light driven frenzy of misplaced passion among the lawyers and a judge almost as helpless as Judge Ito to control the proceedings.
But that is not the reason for the case’s draw. I suspect what draws us to the Anthony trial is something darker, and something deeper.
Some will say the case draws because of the senseless horror of the murder and disposal of a child’s body. But that is too simple. A culture that truly cared about children wouldn’t look for easy poster children around which to rally: It would assure that all children are adequately fed, clothed, educated and cared for. Drive through any urban area and behold the wreckage of our promise of equal opportunity for all. The sad fact is that most of us don’t give a damn most of the time about strangers.
What engages the moral sense, as David Hume observed long ago, is sympathy. We are drawn to the sorrows and pains of those close to us. We don’t care about the plight of strangers unless we recognize something of ourselves in them. There are simply too many people in the world for us to care about all equally. In the great moral equation of life, ought there not be outrage and clamoring to run to Dafur to help the starving children there? They are other. Casey Anthony is one of us.
I advance the following working hypothesis about what makes a high-profile criminal trial possible. While the accusations against the defendant and the harm wrought upon the victim involve strangers, we identify with them. And we do so because of desires and aspirations of our own, quirks in our own psyches unrelated to the face of the trial participants. A psychoanalyst might call these reaction formations.
I suspect the Casey Anthony trial appeals because it is a trial steeped in our national pathology of sexophrenia. Yes, Ms. Anthony became a mother, and she did so, we all know, by the conventional means. But she refused to knuckle under to the relentless demands of motherhood. She wanted more of the cheap and easy thrills we are sold daily by means of the advertising all around us: She wanted forever to be young, beautiful, desired, and unencumbered. I posit that we all want that at some level. If we didn’t Madison Avenue would find another gimmick to sell us everything from toothpaste to cars.
So the Anthony trial pits our secret selves against our daytime commitments. We want her punished because we know if she is not, then all the sacrifices we make for our children would be mocked. But yet, some part of us watches Casey with less than horror. We watch in rapt fascination to see how she bears up, to determine whether she can get away with what we all want: the ability to be consumed by desire while at the same time remaining free.
We can’t have it both ways. We know that. Civilization is hard work. When one of the flock breaks free, we turn on the outlier like angry birds, pecking away to punish. We seek to punish the outlier and to remind ourselves that the wages of transgression is death.
What makes this trial and trials of this sort irresistible is not the public trial of a stranger. We don’t care about her at all. She is a trope, an actress cast upon a stage. What we care about are the shadows within. We watch ourselves as we watch her. And we are conflicted. We know she should be punished if she is in fact guilty of the crime. But admit or not, some secret part of us roots for her acquittal. We’d all like to get away with murder.