Murder and mayhem, it turns out, are as old as … well, as old as The Hartford Courant, which this year celebrates its 250th anniversary. In fact, crime, a form of transgression, is as old as recorded history, reaching back into the stories we tell ourselves about human origins: What was Adam's eating of the apple but trespass; and Cain's slaying of Abel? — murder, plain and simple.
What puzzles me is the fascination we find in crime stories. Though criminal acts terrify and anger us, we can't seem to get enough of them. We read about them in newspapers and novels, and we watch movies and television series about crime. Crime pays it seems, at least to viewers reaping the psychic reward of watching.
Victims' rage and sorrow over their individual loss is easy to understand: Our losses define us, after all, and those of us marked by violence bear wounds that never really heal.
But why do the rest of us enjoy the public spectacle of a trial? We enjoy crime stories because tales of transgression are a secular form of worship, permitting us to pay obeisance to the silent imperatives of the group. Tales of transgression permit us both to identify with the transgressor and to share in his punishment.
A primal vestigial code requiring social cooperation is rooted in our genes. Yes, we are individuals, but not one of us is self-sufficient. We drive on roads built by others, speak a language that took shape before we were born and in countless other ways depend upon the cooperation of strangers for our survival. Inchoate communism unites us.
Consider the behavior of large flocks of starlings in flight, known as a murmuration. Hundreds of thousands of individual starlings are capable of soaring seemingly in unison, instantaneously turning all at once, as if responding to a common cue. They do so without words, and without obvious signals. (To see it here's a link: vimeo.com/31158841.) The birds are hardwired for coordinated group life. So, I suspect, are we.
Unlike birds, we appear to have a powerful drive for individual expression. Indeed, we've made individualism into an ideology in the United States, and some libertarians enjoy the fantasy of living independent of meaningful ties to others. But even egoists take a hybrid satisfaction in the punishment of others.
On a conscious level, we justify the punishment of transgressors on grounds of deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation. The courts mete out criminal sentences as a rough measure of what some call "justice." Our interest in criminal justice, then, is in part a desire to see the convicted get their just deserts.
But the criminal justice system reflects a deeper and more sinister truth. I suspect that just beneath the surface — subconsciously, if you will — we identify with the transgressor. It is not that we wish we had done the crime, but we know we share the murderous impulse. We identify with the killer because we know we are capable of the same act. We are drawn to the so-called high-profile cases out of a desire to flirt with the sin within. What would it be like to commit the forbidden act? We rage against the offender for having done what we would not permit ourselves to do.
Don't be too quick to reject this hypothesis.
Consider the trial of Casey Anthony in Florida. The young mother was accused of murdering her daughter, Caylee. The case attracted widespread attention.
On the surface, the reason was simple. We love children. But if we truly loved children we'd mourn the death of thousands of starving children daily in the third world, a fact we could address if we had the will to do so.
Just beneath the surface was ambivalence. Why if Casey could reject the requirements of motherhood to resume the carefree life of a party girl, what of our restraint? The law-abiding saw Casey and realized that they, too, could have their freedom back. But only by breaking a taboo. We loved to hate Casey as a consolation prize for honoring the taboo we know we could break.
So long as we have newspapers, we'll have high-profile reports of depraved acts. And we will flock to the reporting for reasons we are uncomfortable admitting. Crime stories serve as morality plays, at once reminding us that our forbidden desires bear with them the seeds of destruction.
We police those who fly outside the flock, seeking to destroy them, even as the wildness within us all secretly wished we could fly without restraint. We'll be doing it for the next 250 years, too, I suspect.
Norman A. Pattis is a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer in Bethany.Copyright © 2015, CT Now