“Pam Smart?” replied my young friend. “I know the name, but I don’t know why.” It took only a few words to freshen his memory
“It’s not been that long,” I think to myself. “Has it?” Then I realize that the Millennial generation was just getting around to being born when one of New Hampshire’s most salacious murder trials became, arguably, the biggest “media circus” of the late 20th century.
I’d lived in the state for a few years when the story became front-page news (and remained in the headlines for months). Crime stories don’t have quite the fascination for me that’s required to keep TV shows like “CSI” high on Nielsen ratings, but I paid enough attention to formulate my own verdict along the way — guilty — and to be shocked when I learned that many people disagreed with me.
Seems they still do. A current petition addressed to the NH Executive Council on Change.org is titled, “Free the Wrongly Convicted Pamela Smart.” As of the writing of this note in early October, 2,078 had signed up.
Since the 1990s, with the proliferation of the internet and the 24-hour cable news shows, public obsessions over spectacular crimes and convictions (or vindications, however technical) have become so common that they seem like mere punctuation marks in the story of our troubled world.
Along the way, we’ve also grown more accustomed to these “split-screen” views of issues, where two people of apparent good will and reasonable intelligence can seem to be seeing two entirely different worlds through their TVs and computer screens.
The 1995 “trial of the century” verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder case was a watershed moment for this realization, where the televised announcement of his innocence aroused both cheers and moans, sometimes from the same family of viewers.
We’ve grown accustomed to this kind of division, as it has permeated our political discourse about everything from foreign policy decisions to police shootings. It has certainly come to a head in the current presidential election, where both sides sum up the other in a single word: “unfit.”
Our decision to re-air details from this trial ["Pamela Smart: Innocent or (Still) Guilty?"] — one that transfixed so many of us in the previous century — was in part because it’s still a fascinating story and there are, indeed, still questions that linger. But also because we need to be reminded from time to time how complex and often contradictory the nuances of such crimes can seem, no matter how positive we are about our own conclusions.
This fact is highlighted in the most sensational events of our past and is the seed of every conspiracy theory around a famous assassination, or every world-changing moment in history from the sinking of the Lusitania to the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Maybe what we’re witnessing with such divisions isn’t the demise of Western Civilization but just a coming of age, a cultural maturity that requires us to admit that the more we know, the more mystery beguiles us.
Ambrose Bierce, who was a critic of modernity (and culture in general) back when cynicism was less trendy, summed it up like this in his “Devil’s Dictionary”: “Positive, adj.: Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.”