Desperately Seeking Closure
Since when is a jury trial supposed to validate our feelings?
By Jeff Smith
JANUARY 20, 1998: If you really want to know what's going on in America, watch The Today Show or one of its equivalents on the major TV networks. Rikki Lake, Springer, Regis and Mrs. Gifford and the rest of that ilk will fill in the gaps in certain specific venues of dysfunction, but your essential Humanities 101 course in contemporary culture of the Great Unwashed is on every morning while you're drinking coffee and working up a bowel movement.
As I take pen in hand to scribble this missive, what's going on in America is a great whine about lack of fulfillment. Specifically, the modern phenomenon of mass participation in the private, personal events of other people's lives has given rise to a new entitlement: The public--which is to say, the television audience, that vast sing-along gang with a headful of opinions no more reasoned than the tune to "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"--expects to be left feeling satisfied, complete and unconfused at the end of the story.
It's a goal uncomfortably akin to orgasm and ironically--given the powerful primal urge behind that one--it's a need that didn't exist, or went unnoticed, until recently. Then some mischievous wag pressed an underemployed word into misusage and, hey presto! everybody needs to achieve...closure.
The specific context on the Today Show in question was another dreary post-mortem on the Oklahoma City bombing and subsequent three-ring legal circus. When did jury trials become referenda for shut-ins with one hand on the TV remote and the other alternating between the Cheez Doodles and the 900 Opinion Line? I can't say with specificity, but I know that when the judge in the au pair trial opted to pronounce his sentence over the Internet rather than the courtroom, he validated this whole pernicious group-grope phenomenon. (There's another loathesome neologism: validated. It used to be you got your parking ticket validated.)
Anyway, Katie Couric was chatting up some of the usual suspects, plus a couple of jurors from the Terry Nichols trial, about the jury's inability to decide to microwave Terry for building a bomb that could only have been used either to kill 160-plus people or maybe scatter a herd of dairy cattle from mid-Oklahoma to parts of Texas, Missouri, New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska, and the burden of the debate was how fair or unfair it was to the survivors of the blast, the families and friends of the victims and survivors, the general populace of Oklahoma City and the State of Oklahoma, the folks out there in TV Land, and the jurors themselves.
As the colloquy drew closer to the nub of the issue, it became clear that where the parties truly divided was whether, absent a pound of flesh and coupla quarts of blood, Terry Nichols' wafer and wine, this vast, vicarious mob could go home and get a decent night's sleep...
"...If we had not dead-locked, I believe we could have achieved closure," said one of the jurors, in a triple split-screen shot, while to her left the other juror nodded assent and to her right the mother of a bombing victim, by now a veteran television celebrity, pulled a face that regular viewers reflexively take to mean "I have not achieved closure."
Justice, law, the jury system and all of that are not about closure and would not be about closure, even if closure were something real and important, rather than the psychobabble buzzword of the moment. A fair trial is about presenting evidence and letting a jury decide if the accused did it or not. And deciding then, within the applicable statutes, what punishment should follow a guilty verdict. It's between the state and the defendant. Being as how the state is the people in this here democracy, even people with nothing better to do than watch TV, the people get all the say-so they deserve. The idea that anybody's touchy-feely wants or needs, real or imagined, has any business here is twisted and sick to the point of hilarity.
Yet such is the state of the nation that the most revered national media, and even jurists themselves (as witness the au pair judge), have fallen--nay, dived (triple front flip with a twist, pike)--into this morass. How not? Judges and Katie Courics are human too. They watch TV. They see trials other than the ones they preside and chat over. Are they immune to folly? Of course not.
Am I? Why no, but my folly lies elsewhere, for others to point out to me: In this particular mine eye is bright.
Americans today are like Romans of old: They want bread and circuses and they like to give the thumbs up or down on matters great and small...and have it count. Hell, we won't go to the polls and vote anymore, but we'll pay 90 cents a call to tell Geraldo that we think Terry Nichols ought to be executed and another 90 to vote for Bruce getting a sex-change operation and adopting Randy's step-children by his third marriage.
And if the rest of the call-in audience doesn't vote along with us, we sull-up and snivvel about closure.
Hey, if you want closure, buy yourself a suit with two pairs of pants and heed the warning of the mom who bought the same for her adolescent son. Asked by the tailor whether her preference, by way of closure, was button-fly or zipper, she answered:
"Better make it buttons. He's got a jacket with a zipper, and he's always getting his tie caught in it."
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