A Criminal Disconnect 2/28/14 podcast
Night after night, on cable and network television, in video games, millions of Americans are fascinated by crime.
Which is to say they are fascinated by what is presented to them as crime. Ever since Law and Order and L.A. Law, crime solvers have taken over the top slots on weekly ratings reports. Blood thirsty-ness has descended to teenagers, too, who are half in love with easeful death watching vampire shows, “True Blood,” zombie sagas.
What all these shows have in common – which actual crime often does not – is rhyme and reason. There is a crime, there is a criminal, there are police and procedures, hospitals, social workers. Car chases, lost in wilderness sagas, giant and unbelievable leaps into space at the last minute.
Most important to these entertainments is motive. There must have been a motive. Why would he or she have done that, what is their reason? Revenge, love, anger, ambition, bi-polarism, post traumatic syndrome, family battles, drug problems.
But most important here is the fact that all these wonderful motives – all the good writing, the wonderful performances, the production values – have nothing at all to do with what Americans experience as crime in their own communities.
Chicago PD, Matrix, Con Air, Revolution, Criminal Minds, Burn Notice, Evil Dead, True Detective, a hundred different CSI’s, not to mention a smaller number but more highly rated NCIS’s, in addition to cable series set in prisons, on the streets of various medium-sized cities – all entertain (quote-quote) the nation nightly.
But real crime is too often motiveless. Often it’s a simple physical reaction to stress, poverty, stupidity, anger, idleness and the desire to be part of whatever’s happening.
Children killed on the streets of Chicago are too often just the wrong-end-of-the-stick kids, kids who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, kids whose innocence never prepared them to be on the lookout for danger, to themselves or their friends.
Children killed suddenly in New York may have been just like those in Chicago, victims of parental arguments, rage, disappointments, hardship.
The closest we as observers can come to identifying a motive for such violence is that something, or someone, snapped. That’s what happens. A system is overloaded and breaks down violently, striking the innocent. Forget background checks, psychologists, annual rain fall, dietary depression. When a piece of equipment dies, it may also kill others around it. It’s that simple.
Parents of every color and type warn their children about dangers of all kinds. Yet someone walks into a grade school with a gun and blows all the preparation and feeling of security a parent provides away.
Until and unless a neighborhood is hit with crimes that are meaningless…a home invasion, a rape and beating, married spousal abuse … that neighborhood gets its jollies from watching violence on a screen.
We don’t understand why? Are we as a people simply bloody-minded, craving hard knocks and masochism? Is it actual pleasure we receive watching fictional others (quote-quote) be stripped, beaten, starved, burned, blown up? Watching the most incredible cruelties, we no longer turn our heads away or close our eyes. Rather, we’re riveted to the screen.
While we like to out-think our fictional detectives and squad members as to motive, as to “who done it,” basically we don’t give a damn as long as there’s enough carnage involved.
This is not a matter of gun control. It’s a matter of emotional control, our own. We have none in the face of picturesque deaths. Watching week by week, we see the same faces appearing as corpses or as killers. On weekends we haul ourselves up concrete stairways in stadiums across the country to watch breathlessly as (though we deny this) drivers risk their lives in a circle of possibility below. Cage-fighting is fun, too. Watching news coverage of the Big Punches – unsuspected attacks by teenagers seeking to deck any of us with one blow – is fascinating. We get to see security camera film of shoot-outs in convenience stores, or count numbered markers in the parking lots of malls indicating number and placement of rifle fire.
If we removed crime reporting from the six o’clock news, we’d have a seven minute newscast, not to mention thousands of disappointed viewers. The weather is fearsome, and stock plunges are scary, but down deep, they don’t really cut it.
Real crime too often has no motive that’s comprehensible to most of us. It has no good guys, no rhyme or reason behind it. And after watching a dozen years of this, when it does happen to us, what do we have? Comparisons, anger, shock, surprise. How could we claim surprise, ever?
For honest-to-God motivated crime today we suggest looking at the astonishing picture from the United Nations that decorated our front pages Wednesday morning last. A shattering panorama of loss, need, hunger, despair, dissolution, destruction. Thousands of Syrians all moving one way, towards the distribution of food aid promised by the U.N., with a background of shattered and bombed buildings and homes behind. Perhaps the best picture (a terrible win) of motivated violence ever taken.
If this moment of captured agony does not move you, then you’re past it and lost to inane violence whose purpose is to entertain.
We hear the excuse from filmmakers and newscasters that they are only providing what the public wants to see. We says Nuts! Provide the public with hopeful scenarios, with stories of success and upward mobility, of courage and sacrifice, and ratings will equal or better what you’re racking up now.
We’re not advocating mindless family comedies as an antidote to the horrific crimes that really do take place in our country. Only suggesting that the latter feeds something deeply unhealthy in our national character when we might, in time, replace gore and guts with guts and glory.