Only a jury should decide if Casey Anthony killed her daughter Caylee. The general public cannot witness the evidence against her, nor should we. Whether American justice condemns or exonerates Casey, her family must confront the lingering consequences of Caylee’s death, Casey’s public humiliation, and Casey’s possible guilt. We should respectfully let them face these circumstances in relative privacy.
But the general public has a moral responsibility to question the vampire-like glee with which our media purveys, and we consume, Casey’s trial coverage. The lurid focus on Casey’s party life, and the poorly sublimated condemnation of a woman who defines herself as anything but a mother, don’t just reflect Casey Anthony or the mass media. They conceal truths we cannot accept about ourselves and our society.
Quite apart from the actual investigation, the media circus accruing to the case since 2008, calling into question the fairness of any trial—especially one with capital punishment on the line—speaks volumes about our national values. From supermarket tabloids to network television to respectable papers, the media foregrounds every image of Casey Anthony having a drink, attending a party, or looking happy after Caylee’s death as implicit proof of her guilt, and more importantly, her wickedness.
We could dismiss this as mere yellow journalism if it arose from expected quarters. Late-night crap TV and crass websites butter their bread with sensationalism. But reputable CNN anchors and network analysts attempt to maintain stone-faced solemnity. Then, while the live feed flashes stock images of Casey’s party-girl persona, they can hardly keep the grins from their voices, like amateur comedians trying not to laugh at their own jokes.
This trial hardly pioneers such excess. Sociologist Barry Glassner, in The Culture of Fear, names prior cases where “infanticidal mothers are routinely depicted by the media as depraved beyond what any of us can imagine about ourselves or our friends and relatives.” Monstrous moms, Glassner asserts (citing Bruno Bettelheim), shield our purity. If depraved women like Casey Anthony exist, we reason, then my childrearing techniques, and my mother’s, seem fairly okay.
Yet there’s more at play. From a cultural mythology perspective, murderous mothers exonerate our whole culture from responsibility for suffering children. Among major economies, America’s gap between rich and poor is second only to China. Most of our legislators, employers, and other leaders come from wealthy backgrounds. No one suffers more under this inequality than children.
The CIA World Factbook, hardly a bleeding heart propaganda rag, says: “The onrush of technology largely explains the gradual development of a ‘two-tier labor market’ in which those at the bottom lack the education and the professional/technical skills of those at the top and, more and more, fail to get comparable pay raises, health insurance coverage, and other benefits.” Children born on the lower tier can expect to work disrespected jobs all their lives, and pass such circumstances to their own children.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, children are more likely than any other group to live in poverty, lack health insurance, and eat an unbalanced diet. One in five children live below the poverty line. Children are more likely to die of diseases adults consider routine, like diarrhea and the flu, but little research goes toward these illnesses. Unfortunately, while these numbers improved from 1993 to 2000, they have trended worse in the new millennium, and continue to do so.
Rather than admit our culpability for these disgraceful trends, we let the media direct our wrath onto “wicked witches” like Casey Anthony. Like the biblical scapegoat, she receives our sins, and is cast into the wilderness. Thus, she serves purposes of ritual purification, but if, after the ritual, we maintain our sinful ways—and history proves we will—then we will need a new dedicated recipient of our society’s sins.
Barely out of childhood herself, Casey Anthony stands accused in the court of public opinion, not of killing her child, but of embodying our collective guilt. While Americans enjoy the gleeful schadenfreude of watching her private life publicly catalogued, we wear blinders, refusing to acknowledge that raising children is a more than full time job. If we require women to do it alone, denying them human fulfillment in favor of constant self-abnegation, such cases will only recur.
We must unplug the television, take a hard look at ourselves, and face our conduct. Otherwise, when this circus folds its tent, we will search out the next diversion, and the next, while festering in our own sins.
Follow-up: The Difference Between Justice and Rage