Crime & Punishment

In contemporary America, who really calls us to account?

One cost of being a celebrity is that if you suffer a crisis, the public will try to peer into your soul. A hundred million people lined up in front of O.J. Simpson's cell isn't a pretty sight.

Some spectacles--for example, the Tonya Harding affair--are simply spectacles. O.J. Simpson's saga is more deeply engrossing for reasons not easily analyzed on a CNN roundtable. I'm talking about more than our reluctance to discuss (as Barbara Grizzuti Harrison does so honestly in this issue) the sexual/racial crossroads where these murders apparently took place.

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If Simpson is guilty, then he has committed a crime any civilized society must deem evil. But this word has been conspicuously absent in the public and private discussions I've heard to date.

Of psychology we've had no shortage, and we're bound to get more. As the forensic evidence mounts and a trial date approaches, the media will probably treat us to psychiatric commentary: "O.J. viewed Nicole as a trophy wife. When this trophy behaved independently--imagined a life of her own and then feared for it--a rageful part of O.J. split off. Perhaps he always was a multiple personality. . . ."

Certainly the earlier episodes revealed a violent streak that no one ever forced him to confront, in part because he had come to symbolize geniality. Simpson's image was a communal creation. A contemporary Descartes might postulate: "Our celebrities exist, therefore we are." We have created the famous so that they will seduce us.

Last March, I saw the Simpsons on vacation having dinner at a restaurant. O.J. graciously obliged autograph seekers. When one boy approached without paper, O.J. signed his cloth napkin "Peace and Love." He presided with understated grace, teasing a friend at a nearby table, accepting lightly the attention all around him.

I left the restaurant at the same time as the Simpsons; we were parked at the top of the same hill. His family had come in a small van, which he couldn't get into reverse. Each time he let go of the clutch, the car jolted forward. He, Nicole, and their children kept laughing as he edged them closer to the slope. They seemed so naturally on top of the world.

Tens of millions of Americans have had similar glimpses of Simpson. Football fans watched him bounce off a tackler, then sprint for a touchdown. His ability to remain so unblemished amid such violence, to craft a Hall of Fame career on a perennially losing team, to resist complaining in the Buffalo snows far from his chosen Southern California, earned him an image American business wanted as its own. When he sprinted effortlessly through airports for Hertz cars, focus groups said that they didn't perceive him as black. He was an All-American. In the "Naked Gun" movies, he was even at ease deprecating his own machismo.

But self-deprecation and grace aren't the same as insight and self-control. America's color-blind perception of Simpson also meant no one really wanted to see the real O.J.; no wonder he lost sight of himself.

Contemporary institutions don't encourage us to see who we are and what we're doing. While admiring our constitutional guarantees, one can still dislike the way our legal system helps those accused avoid confronting guilt. Cameras in the courtroom may further diminish the possibility that the accused will accept responsibility. In modern America, talk-show confession is popular, but truly facing the consequences of our behavior is not.

Paradoxically, as we've expanded and filled our prisons, we've lost faith in our ability to judge and reform. Even those already convicted have mechanisms to avoid accepting guilt. Journalists frequently propose stories to Mother Jones about innocents in jail. Once a writer was so convincing that I decided to visit his man on San Quentin's death row. The convict immediately, furiously, analyzed why the police, the prosecution, the judge, and the appellate courts didn't have sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he'd murdered and decapitated. It was just as likely, he said, that the sole perpetrator was his accomplice, a woman he excoriated with a brutal intensity that helped convince me he was guilty. I also noticed during his monologue, which radiated a deep and detailed knowledge of the law, that he never said that he didn't commit the crime.

When a young Dostoyevsky was sent to Siberia for political crimes, he met remorseless prisoners. At first he speculated they might be uneducated or stupid; then he came to realize that they were smarter than the average Russian. They viewed his idealism with contempt. Their calculation without conscience freed up some of their intellect. The physical rush they felt while committing their crimes had ripened into a feeling of superiority toward ordinary people.

In Dostoyevsky's subsequent creation, "Crime and Punishment," Raskolnikov spends more than a year in prison before realizing that his self-possession was in fact self-infatuation and led him to evil.

One wonders if O.J. Simpson felt that same self-possession during his plane flight to Chicago. In the long run, his ostensibly relaxed demeanor en route could prove more damning than the desperate, televised flight of his soul on the L.A. freeway.

Watching Simpson's story unfold, I wonder who really calls us to account. We've lost faith in the idea of divinely monitored sin; we've trivialized psychology so that it can explain away everything, even condone transgression in the name of identity growth or identity repair.

When a hero collided with his dark side, the ancient Greeks called it tragic fate. We no longer embrace this concept because it diminishes our sense of free will. Yet we fear the collective will (government, religion) as oppressive, and individual wills as predatory. How then should we govern our nature?

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