“What do you think of the Casey Anthony case?” the barista asked me while I waited for my pineapple smoothie.
“I feel bad for her.”
Inside the tiny coffee shop, heads turned and jaws dropped. The barista seemed stunned. “You’re the only person I’ve talked to that feels this way, and I’ve talked to a ton of people about this.”
Perhaps it’s the writer in me that keeps my harsher emotions at bay. In fiction, for characters to be believable, they have to behave a certain way and are not allowed to defy the logic of their being. I have a deep sympathy for these villains who are unable to escape their own limitations. But Casey Anthony is not a fictional character, yet I wonder why it should be unnatural to feel bad for a woman who may or may not have killed her child. Even if she committed a heinous act, isn’t she a fellow human being. If religion does not beg us to care for all men, doesn’t civilization? Do we not feel compassion for those who slip and fall? I have heard my church pastor say that there is no man or woman so lost to be undeserving of our love. Do we begin to qualify this statement? It’s the same reason we don’t hate those who hate us or try to harm us. We may disapprove of one’s actions or disagree with one’s opinions, but to hate? Hatred has a way, once you let it in, of making itself comfortable and spreading like a virus, manifesting on the surface as anger and fear.
The gushing vitriol towards Casey Anthony is what is more unsettling to me than anything and reflects something about who we are as a country. We have become a country that lusts for opportunities to exact revenge, revenge against terrorists, revenge against ex-spouses, revenge against former employers, revenge against the utility or cable companies, revenge against opposing political parties. People will cite the “eye for an eye” aphorism, but it’s this type of thinking that we exchanged for what we call civilization. What if Casey Anthony were your sister, the one you grew up with playing with Barbie dolls or My Little Ponies? Or what if she were the next-door neighbor who helped you move in? We don’t know who she was nor can we determine the angle of reflection that shapes her perceptions of the world. We have a limited portrait, two-dimensional, painted largely by the media, of a woman whose entire life is now defined by one event. No man or woman is without redeemable qualities. No one but her knows if she feels pain or remorse. Something led her astray in life, but shouldn’t we be trying to steer her back on a path more agreeable to a civilized society? Hating her does not accomplish this. Neither does banishing her. For that matter, neither does forgiving her (forgiving only allows us to get back on the right path). And revenge doesn’t undo what was done. The best we can do is forget and move on…and allow her to move on.
If, however, we should insist on being angry, shouldn’t our anger be directed at the judicial system? Should we now condemn our founders’ ideal that it’s better to let nine guilty men go free than to send one innocent man to prison? Do we really want to reconsider this philosophy? I get a sense that as a society we already have. I think there are many now who would argue that it’s better to send nine innocent men to prison than to let one stinkin’, son-of-a-bitch, no-good criminal go free. It is reflected in our tendency to get the evildoers out of sight, out of mind, even if there is some collateral damage along the way. It is reflected in our urge to wipe Afghanistan off the map after we were attacked, even though it was a relatively small group that wanted to do us harm. It is reflected in our suspicions towards Hispanic minorities who might be here illegally. It is reflected in our attitudes toward criminals in general. In 1950, roughly 70 percent of the population believed the role of prisons was to correct behavior while 30 percent believed it was to punish. In a recent poll, those numbers have flipped.
We are dangerously veering away from what it means to be civilized. We are more concerned with forging a unanimity of opinion than welcoming opposing views not just for the purpose of debate but for deeper illumination. We live in an op-ed world where the news is no longer the news but endless commentary passed onto us as news. We are told what to think, how to feel. Instead, we should treat each suggestion with suspicion and ask questions. At one time, we had to guess at the opinions of our news anchors, but now their alliances are firm and conspicuous. And now, since we can broadcast our opinions on social media and message boards, it is no longer just the media stoking the flames of fear and hatred; we are cultivating our own mobs!
And here I am doing the same thing, using social media to opine with no authority to do so. But as a writer of fiction, I am feeling boldly uninhibited, which tends to happen to people who dance along the line dividing fantasy and fact. When I write, I feel obligated to explore deep inside the core of characters, extracting enviable qualities that are sometimes embedded within a coarse rind. I think a writer must willing to turn a villain into a hero or to find the darkened heart within a pleasant man because to do otherwise would be to imprison characters and to shield them from the life-shaping encounters with chance. I do this also because I am acutely aware of my own defects. I am defined by my limitations. Anytime I have a gut reaction, I check it with skepticism. I don’t believe any writer is so arrogant as to refrain from doubting every word set to paper, so our work is a result of wrestling with ideas and philosophies that never quite get resolved. As Anton Chekhov once said, a writer’s responsibility is to offer questions, not to answer them. The only point I feel I can definitively make is that it’s difficult if not impossible to be definitive about anything. It’s why writers often linger in shadows where forms are without absolute color or contour, and it’s why I resist my primal urge to hate Casey Anthony.