Sitting in a jail cell or in a Florida court room, Casey Anthony has become a TV reality star. Hair pulled back, sometimes teary but face mostly flat, she's become someone people around the world can't seem to get enough of. The daily trial tidbits have become a pop-culture phenomenon around the world. In a way, it's a 21st century take on the ancient Roman gladiator games -- murder as public spectacle. Through endless news feeds on multiple venues, you can watch good-versus-evil with an ability to render judgment, giving every witness, every emotion, every piece of evidence the proverbial thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The trial has become fodder for countless in-person and on-line discussions.
It's like the compulsion of watching a train wreck -- you're horrified but fascinated at the same time and can't seem to pull your eyes away. Above all, you're curious -- what does death really look like, how did it happen and who is responsible? It's a real-life "whodunit." The Casey Anthony trial is a never-ending trail of duct tape and decomposing tissue, wild parties and dysfunctional family dynamics, suicide attempts and sexual allegations. In all of those compelling bread crumbs, it's hard to remember that you're being taken down a path that, ultimately, ends in the murder of a small child, a child whose life was taken from her, stuffed into a garbage bag and dumped in the woods. That's not a destination most people want to arrive at. They'd rather enjoy the spectacle along the way. The outcome becomes not a way to evaluate justice for a toddler but as a reason to throw a "Verdict Watch Party."
What's going on here? How did we become so removed from the terrible truth behind all this courtroom drama? In our culture today, events are trumpeted with special musical intros and bold, red-lettered graphics. Everything is a news-flash; everything is spectacular. We're bombarded with attention-getting tactics and we do pay attention. We pay attention to it all and become numbed to what's really going on underneath. With continuous news-feeds and on-the-spot interviews, we're taken time and time again to the scene of known disasters and unknown mysteries, like who killed little Caylee. With such repetition, we can become immune to the true emotional impact. When disasters and tragedies become just one more spectacle, we react like spectators, watching while we're eating chicken casserole or surfing the Net, looking for entertainment.
Over-sensationalized, we become desensitized to horror. It becomes just another factoid to absorb, analyze and discuss. Joining with others, we become part of a wave of cultural phenomenon and ride the collective momentum. The more detached, dispassionate and analytical the group becomes, the easier it is to dissolve into that established normalcy and the less likely we are to feel the horror on an individual level. We stop thinking as a person and begin to react as part of a crowd.
Perhaps it's time to take back our individual humanity and stop joining it to the greater collective. Empathy and compassion are highly personal responses. They swell up out of our individual experiences, values and deeply-held beliefs. When pressed by media manipulation and the ensuing group-think, we need to react individually. We need to feel individually for individual people and individual situations.
There is another way to lose yourself in a public spectacle, like the Casey Anthony trial and that is to become so identified with it, you lose a sense of yourself. You start to inhabit the world of the trial and put on hold what's happening in your real-life. You can't seem to stop yourself from checking the progress online. Every banner, every broadcast lead-in has to be meticulously attended to. It's like experiencing the vicarious thrill of a roller-coaster ride. It's all the adrenaline rush of real danger without having to put yourself in actual danger.
Somehow, I think Caylee Anthony, even the entire Anthony family, deserve more than that. They are being flayed open and exposed publicly. The destruction of their privacy deserves a certain measure of respect. These sorts of tragedies are shoved in our faces on a regular basis but we can still choose to respond individually, as well as compassionately, resisting the temptation to turn it into a legal sporting event so we can cheer and boo with a crowd of our friends. We can resist turning it into an inwardly-focused, voyeuristic catharsis, taking the emphasis off of a dead child and putting it vicariously onto ourselves.
Casey Anthony will be judged by how she responds in her trial. We will be judged by how we respond to her trial. At this point, the verdict is still out.
Follow Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gregoryjantzphd