Some crimes are their own punishment.
And for everything else, there’s show trials.
Usually the idea that your name is about to be turned into mud in front of a mud-hungry public is enough deterrent.But this is the John Edwards case, where nothing is quite usual.
Thursday afternoon the verdict was returned, and Jeffery Toobin of CNN said it best. “This is a mess. This is not how trials are supposed to end.” The jury returned a verdict on only one of the six counts. The judge sent them back. Everything is confusion.
But what else did we expect?
I don’t know who exactly came up with the idea of the trial as media circus, but he must have had a bad experience with an elephant at an early age. The term doesn’t make sense. The point of a circus is to keep the elephant dung out of the public eye. The point of a show trial media circus is to put it front and center and shine a spotlight on it at unforgiving angles. Elephant dung abounds in unflattering angles, so this is not hard.
Even if the jury had emerged Thursday afternoon and announced with a single voice that Edwards was guilty of everything of which he had been accused, it would have made not a whit of difference. There is no good verdict in this case. The court of public opinion reached its own long ago.
Forget jail and fines. The vast ravening maw of public opinion, in John Edwards’ case, will not rest until he is declared ritually unclean by everyone under the sun. We approach him with all the righteous fury of a jilted lover. For a while, he had us. And then we realized we’d been had. So whenever he walks past, we are to pelt him with garbage and cry “Shame! Shame!” Lepers, glimpsing him on the sidewalk, must shake their heads and cross the street. Pigs must cover their faces when people try to shoehorn the two of them into pictures. We want him ruined. We want to hit him where it hurts. We want him to demonstrate remorse.
But this trial being what it was, we couldn’t have expected anything that simple.
This is one of those painfully massive battles fought over a piece of land too small to try the issue. The charges brought against Edwards are complicated. The behavior of the jurors has been odd.
And it goes on.
The point of a massive circus of a trial like this is to shame. Show trials are flops if the victim does not suffer. They are supposed to be their own punishment. Usually they are. No right-thinking, well-adjusted person would sign up to be the victim of the circus. But if there is anything we know about John Edwards, it is that he is no normal human being. After all, the reason we are so irate at John Edwards to begin with, the reason that he seemed to merit this intensely public spectacle, is that he was so shameless. Even as the trial went on, some thought he was flirting with a juror. Our torture is not working. If this were the 18th century, he would be grinning in the pillory.
“This hurts me more than you,” the punishing parent always says. This time, it’s true. He’s ruined. He’s disgraced. Or should be. But the spotlight always points out the same thing: the perfect hair, the telegenic face, the occasional flicker of a smile. The camera does not understand shame. All it knows is whom to point at.
“Suffer!” we shout, turning the spotlight brighter. “Feel misery!” we yell, discussing his name on cable until the cows come home. He won’t have fame again. But notoriety we will hand him in spades. Notoriety is store-brand fame. It tastes similar enough to the real thing, but sometimes people complain if you bring it to parties.
Gradually we begin to suspect that we are the ones who look ridiculous.
And in the mean time, the trial goes on. It’s a circus. It’s a joke. But who’s the punchline?