On Tuesday, July 5, 2011, America watched in shocked outrage as Casey Anthony was declared not guilty of murdering her daughter, Caylee Marie. Twelve days later, Anthony was released from prison. She is now a free woman.
Then, on October 3, America eagerly awaited the results of another trial. This time, Americans erupted into joy as Amanda Knox was declared innocent of murdering her British roommate. Knox, in prison in Italy for the last 3 years, was released from prison just a few hours later and quickly found her way back to America.
These cases both gripped the nation’s interest for several years-the Knox case actually arrested the attention of three different countries-and their verdicts created vehement emotional reactions. Many articles have already been written comparing the accused woman and contrasting the reaction to them. People hate Casey. Americans (though not Nancy Grace) love Knox. Maybe that’s only because Knox was tried in Italy, and we wanted her back. Maybe it’s because people especially despise baby-killers. Maybe it’s because people simply find Knox more attractive than Anthony.
The most interesting similarity between their cases, though, is how the American public, not the American or the Italian legal systems, has ultimately decided justice for these women. According to the law, both women are innocent. But everyone knows that Casey Anthony, though not imprisoned, will live as a criminal for the rest of her life-hunted down relentlessly by her fellow American citizens. She receives death threats. Many Facebook groups are devoted to persecuting her or bringing her back to court. Unlike Knox, she has been black-balled by the media, responding to the mob of American voices swearing that Anthony will not make any money of her notoriety. But Amanda Knox was welcomed back with open arms, with hints of book and movie deals already in the works.
Both the cases prove that Americans no longer believe in the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” One is simply “innocent until I say so.” And in Anthony’s trial, it did not take long. The public clamored (not so figuratively) for Anthony’s head during the trial, and this cry only got louder after her acquittal. Even though the prosecution clearly failed to present a tight enough case to convict Anthony (regardless of whether she is guilty or not), the public did not care. They had decided Anthony’s guilt long ago and nothing could change that. The same thing happened in Knox’s trial, just in reverse.
Something must have happened to cause America to stop trusting the justice system, to decide it is society’s duty to step in when the courts seem to fail. What was it? Let me take you back to the 1960 presidential campaign, the first campaign in which television played a significant role. Kennedy embarrassed Nixon just by looking better than him on the tube. That instant, visual impression vaulted him into the hearts and embrace of the American public. As I learned in my Visual Rhetoric class at Cedarville University, images and words make arguments in different ways. Words must persuade readers by weaving facts together. But images ask the reader to make instant decisions-decisions like who we elect president or whether a woman from Florida is guilty or not.
Because of a higher rate of illiteracy and the pervasive influence of television and the internet, visual arguments have grown only more and more influential since 1960. Added to the extensiveness of visual arguments is the ever-increasing value of personal opinion. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and the comments section of YouTube encourage users to post detailed personal information online. This information includes beliefs, religion, family values, and all manner of personal statements. This plethora of opinion, so readily and freely available, completely transformed modern business-a big deal in a country so economically driven. As corporate America began to cater to these loud voices, the individuals behind those voices realized they had power. Facebook especially gives a voice to those who would have no power otherwise-groups like teenage girls, who some now claim run the country because of their voice as consumers.
The internet is primarily a visual place, and like the Kennedy-Nixon debates, social media sites present us with many black-and-white instant decisions. Either you follow someone on twitter or you don’t. Either you like a status or you don’t. You’re either friends with someone or you are not. Either you believe Amanda Knox murdered her roommate or you don’t. These instant decisions combined with the growing power of the individual create a dangerous stubbornness. As Americans we think, “We forced the richest country in the world to revolutionize its business practices. Don’t you dare tell me I’m wrong.”
The more individualistic Americans become, the less they cling to or even care about the institutions in charge of governing them. Notice how few of us show up to vote anymore. Why elect politicians to stand up for one’s views when one can simply tweet them out worldwide in 140 characters or less? When Amanda Knox was freed, twitter exploded-and from America, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Tweets included “it’s good to hear, I didn’t think she was going to make it. #goodforher #AmandaKnoxFree” and “How terrible to be imprisoned for a crime one didn’t commit. How often must this happen?
amandaknoxfree.” Even Matchbox Twenty got in on the celebration, throwing out a “Congratulations Amanda Knox!” on their twitter page. Richard Roeper even made a joke out of the acquittal: “Amanda Knox is free. Wonder is Casey Anthony is looking for a roommate. #toosoon.”
People rejoiced when Knox was let free because the verdict accorded with their own presumed judgments of the case. No one was joking, though, when Anthony was acquitted. People from all walks of life attacked Anthony-reacting angrily to their authority being challenged. From my own friends on Facebook to various celebrities on twitter, the American pledged revenge on Anthony. Model Niki Taylor tweeted “God will judge you Casey! This isn’t over!” and part of a Mandy Moore tweet read “the defense team was abysmal! this is shocking! poor, poor caylee.”
Perhaps lost somewhere in all the moral arguments about guilt and innocence, truth and fraud, is America’s judicial history. When the country was formed, it was implicitly understood that to have freedom it was necessary for everyone to adhere to a set of laws to counteract anarchy. The idea that when government fails society steps in to deliver justice is just a few steps away from riots and mob justice, from taking the law into our own hands. Governments are meant to regulate legality, not morality. Both the Anthony and Knox cases are now in the realm of morality-legally, justice has been served. Murder is illegal not because it is immoral (though it is, obviously) but because it has to be illegal to preserve civilization. When governments begin to regulate morality, bad things happen-ask Nazi Germany or any other dictatorial state. If the American government ever begins to cater to those bullying opinions on Facebook and YouTube the way business has, watch out. The snap, instant decisions that visual arguments ask us to make take away our need to think through complex issues. The American people would become a herd.
The negative effects stemming from seemingly innocuous things like choosing whether to “like” someone on Facebook or not have made obvious by the public reactions over the acquittals of Anthony and Knox. Two questions: how many Americans have, with no bias, examined the evidence in the trials to make a personal decision about either woman’s guilt? Yet, how many of those same people have an immovable opinion on both trials? As Americans, we need to examine whether the death of “innocent until proven guilty” will harm the country. The answer needs to be more complex than yes or no.
Further, as Cedarville students, we need to go against the grain-not follow the herd instinct instilled in us through our extreme exposure to visual arguments. But the newly empowered individual voice-that is something we can use to our advantage. Whether on social media sites, through the printed word, or anywhere else, our knowledge of this problem gives us an obligation to share it with our fellow men and women not just in America, but around the world. Perhaps we could raise a new generation of culturally aware Americans and leave the stain of ignorance behind us. That would be a step towards true social justice.