Televised Trials: The For-Real Hunger Games

Televised Trials: The For-Real Hunger Games July 20, 2013

I did not watch the Zimmerman murder trial. I did not watch the OJ trial. I haven’t watched any of the televised trials that obsess the public.

I also didn’t follow the Timothy McVeigh trial, even though I had a personal interest in its outcome.

From the way that Americans seem to react to these trials, I think perhaps a lot of other people should consider skipping them, too. Trials that put people’s lives and freedom to the test are not some sort of call-in entertainment where the audience picks the winner.

The people who are tasked with the terrible decisions these trials require are the citizens who sit on the jury. I leave it to them, and when I do it, I am grateful that I am not one of them.

Even with Timothy McVeigh, I did not want to sit on the jury that tried him. I did not want to watch his execution. I didn’t want any part of it. However, with McVeigh, I was so trapped in the horrible web of near victim obsession with this particular crime and criminal that I could not stop thinking about it. I oppose the death penalty, but it was a relief when he finally shut up and I knew I would not have to hear about him anymore.

I cannot imagine how I would have felt if the jury had turned him lose. However, I do know two things: My job would have been to go on from there and live, and watching the trial would not have helped me deal with an unwanted verdict.

I’ve had the misfortune of sitting through trials where people I know are involved. Believe me, you don’t want that to be you.

These trials are about horrible events that shatter people’s lives. They are usually about twisted situations that have been brewing and stewing; distilling their malice and meanness for years. There is nothing pretty or edifying about them. The people involved, on both sides, are at the extremities of grief, terror and desperation. This is not a fictional movie or television show in which actors pretend to be in anguish. These are real people, and they are suffering agonies.

These televised trials are becoming a sort of Hunger Games gone real, with vast audiences entertained by watching people suffer horribly. There are no winners in trials like this. The person who has been murdered has already lost their life. In a very real way, the person who is on trial has lost their life, as well. They are suffering extremities of fear that are unimaginable for those of us who haven’t been in the judicial barrel. The judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys will usually end up with tarnished reputations and, due to the massive television audience, the full grief of public notoriety.

The public, in many ways, is the biggest loser, for the simple reason that they have the most to lose. They aren’t dead. Their loved ones haven’t been murdered. They are not on trial for their lives. They don’t have to make the agonizing decision as to guilt and innocence. They are safe, free, unburdened by the responsibility of holding another person’s life in their hands.

But by watching this trial hour after hour, day after day, they become enmeshed in the terrors and miseries of other people’s tragedies to the point that they start feeling as if it did happen to them, and it is about them. This is empathy turned self-destructive. It is obsession that removes the person watching from the simple reality that none of this is about them and none of it happened to them.

These viewers let this trial eat up their days and consume their emotions and thoughts. They take on the responsibility of the jury and sit there in front of their tvs, allowing a cheap obsession to take over their thinking and their lives.

When the verdict comes down and they don’t agree with it, they go into paroxysms of rage and outrage, demanding a re-trial, another charge, another dose of vengeance. Or, if they like the verdict, they feel sated and smug, released of the tension-producing competitiveness that their understanding of the evidence might not prevail.

There is a word for this. The word is obsession. The so-called “news” stations who run these trials are not even vaguely trying to report news. They are going for inexpensive ratings. They are ignoring serious news stories that the public needs to know about to put these trials on the air.

I didn’t watch it, but I gather that the President of the United States had to make a speech about this latest public trial. I see photos of protesting mobs, and grief stricken people, including little children, who are enraged, bereft and emotionally scarred by this verdict.

Make no mistake about it: The events that set this trail in motion are tragic. It was and is a gut-wrenching, heart-tearing tragedy that should not have happened. The people who are close to it will never be the same. But it didn’t happen to that vast television audience or those enraged mobs or even to the President and his Attorney General.

The people it did happen to will suffer for it all their days. But the rest of us will forget it and move on to the next new televised tragedy. In a matter of weeks, we’ll be wringing our hands over something else. Because, you see, it didn’t happen to us. It’s not our lives that are torn apart. It is our cheap entertainment, our obsession that blocks out the pain of whatever really is happening to us. It is our hunger games.

From my I-didn’t-watch-it perspective, all this obsessive rage over this trial looks crazy. I can not fathom it, and that, my friends, is the fruit of not watching. I’m not enraged and distraught. I have not spent my days suffering through a tragedy I can’t change. I am clear of all this craziness and pain.

I know I’m going to get thrashed for saying this. But people need to turn off their televisions and go outside. They need to take a walk or go to a movie about a fictional trial where nobody really dies and nobody really suffers.

Spend time with your families. Pay your bills. Read a book. Play some golf. Go swimming, kiss your babies, say your prayers.

And realize: This didn’t happen to you.

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7 responses to “Televised Trials: The For-Real Hunger Games”

  1. I don’t know that I agree. The principle that trials must be public – that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done – is not served, in the mass age, by just allowing a few hundred people (at the most) in a courtroom. You need the mass media, whatever the potential for abuse. And it is not true that the public has no direct interest in a trial: in fact, Anglo-Saxon law, by making all crimes into offences against the State and the public (Regina vs. Smith/ The State vs. Smith), clearly states, what ought to be a commonplace of morality, that a crime against any one member of the community is a crime against the whole community. “No man is an Island, intire of it selfe…” It looks to me as though you are confusing good taste – which indeed protests against the public-festival aspect and the vulgarity of the performance in a matter that should be regarded with grief and horror – with a principle. I don’t think such a principle exists. And this article strikes me as particularly untimely at a time when we have just heard that the government of the US has set up not only a wholly secret court, but even a system of secret jurisprudence – . If there ever was a time to protest loudly in favour of the publicity of all kinds of trials, this is it.

  2. This is something that needs to be said. The judicial system exists to remove the administration of justice from the mob. In situations like the Trayvon Martin case where there were no eyewitnesses and the evidence was ambiguous, any verdict would have been controversial. But how can the rest of us presume to know what really happened? The accused is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. A lynch mob acts upon the presumption of guilt, but this does not restore peace and harmony in a community. The mob spirit is destructive, not constructive.

  3. For me, there would have been no temptation to watch any of it–and I did not watch–if I was not so frustrated with the conflicting news reports on the tragedy. It felt like the only way to get any sort of reliable information would be to actually watch the witnesses and the trial.

  4. I agree. I never watch or follow any of these celebrated trials. It’s only after this uproar did I learn the details of this event. I am shocked at how an act of self defense has become this media and african-american outrage. The real outrage is that this country with the help of this president is on a path to publicly lynch Gerge Zimmerman.

  5. ” didn’t watch it, but I gather that the President of the United States had to make a speech about this latest public trial. ”

    I disagree. I don’t believe the president had to make a speech. I thought I heard that he commented a few days before the speech, something along the lines of ‘the jury has spoken and we need to respect that.’ He should have stopped there. By making a speech, he only added to the pool of obsession.

  6. You’ve a point here, Fabio, although I find it unconvincing. But even so, this trial was “The state of Florida vs Zimmerman”. Nothing to to do with me, or the President, and we both should keep our noses out of what is a local matter.

  7. I agree completely. We seem to get vicarious thrills from trials such as these. As an American living in the UK, I’m spared this sort of cheap television thrill, as they don’t broadcast trials. Wise.