Like many Americans, I consider murder to be a form of entertainment, and I’m a bit ashamed by that. I can’t really survive international flights without a good gripping murder mystery in my hand. The more creative and depraved, the more I can count on it to keep me occupied, make the flight seem short, and stave off air sickness. I spent the new years holiday watching a marathon of “Castle” on cable. More murder. Somehow it doesn’t seem like such a horrible sin and terrible tragedy when it is presented as a “whodunit” or when it’s presented by characters who quip chirpily as their flirtation weaves its way through crime scenes, witness interrogation, and visits to the medical examiners and their corpses. Have we become completely inured to this kind of creatively stylized violence? Does the “criminal procedure drama” with its equation of mandatory twists, turns, and red-herrings somehow lessen the gruesomeness of the story, the seriousness of the sin? A life snuffed out in violence. A person dead. A person with a mama who loved him, and a birthday, and a life, whatever that life was. How can we look on these stories as entertainment? (Very successful entertainment in the eyes of the studios and networks which produce them.) Is enjoying the dramatic consequences of sin the equivalent of committing some kind of sin oneself?
I felt a certain amount of guilt in enjoying these programs until I started my current job. Basically, I work with foreign governments to help them build fair and efficient criminal justice systems that effectively provide safety to the populace, but also protect the rights of the accused–holding important the rights of individuals to be protected from their government. One problem we frequently come across is a simple incomprehension as to what people really do deserve at the hands of law enforcement. Depending on the society, they may not know that their constiution provides them with free speech, or freedom of assembly, or the right to a defense attorney. This kind of education is generational. Get kids to pay attention in civics class, and then 20 years later, you have community members who are likely to call the police, and complain to the mayor if the police don’t perform well.
How is it that Americans are so well versed in criminal law? We all know we have the right to plead the fifth. (Unless you are in Canada, then don’t do it, it’s embarrassing….people in my line of work make fun of you.) We all know we have the right to an attorney. We all know that the police aren’t supposed to beat the crap out of you, and if they do, call a lawyer. As a result, more people have their rights protected, trials really are adversarial and between the prosecution and defense most evidence is unearthed, and law enforcement is constrained to act on behalf of the public rather than as predators of the public. I know about the exceptional stories dug up by dateline producers, but the bottom line is, they are exceptional stories, and they receive public attention. If the system breaks down, there are fixes, there are internal investigations, there is due process, there are appeals.
Our society works better because we are educated consumers of governance. Our criminal justice system works better because we are educated citizens, and I have to admit, we are educated because we watch so much t.v. We demand, in a Law and Order world, that t.v. writers do their homework. I felt bad about watching so much Law and Order my first semester of law school until my Criminal Law professor admitted to writing fan letters to Dick Wolf complete with suggestions for future episodes.
So now we come back to the original question, if we are entertained by murder, mayhem, and sin, are we not also educated by it? Is it a sin to be a voyeur in this situation, or should we be actively working to export this kind of entertainment as a way of educating citizens in nascent democracies overseas? Is the entertaining presentation of crime morally acceptable? Does it become more acceptable if it is presented in a more stylized way? Or if it is presented from the viewpoint of “the good guys” does it become a morality play, and therefore less egregious? We are voyeurs of murder, mayhem, and sin when we turn on the t.v. What should our moral response be?