ALL THE world's a tragedy these days. The word gets pasted onto everything, even bus fare increases. But once it had meaning. Tragedy was reserved for a rare kind of catastrophe that, according to Aristotle, didn't need the intensity of the dramatic stage to affect us. The mere recounting of the facts would suffice.
"For the plot ought to be so constructed," he wrote in the "Poetics," "that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place."
The crime of Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who one night drowned her two boys, meets the Aristotelian condition. It's been seven months, and even as the legal system prepares for a trial in the coming weeks, the story still stuns the mind into a paralysis. She murdered her sons and then went on to blame the mythological black man, making suckers of us all. Her crime even produced the repellent image -- Oedipus gouging his own eyes, Medea dismembering her brother -- common to all Greek tragedy. Early on, reports alleged that her frantic son Michael caught his mother's eye out the back windshield of her Mazda as it slipped below the muddy surface of the lake. Only a few years ago, liberal columnists would have been musing about the conditions that led to these murders and whether there was any way to prevent them. These days, one senses an embarrassed silence: What could liberalism possibly have to say about a crime so unambiguously grotesque or a woman whose life is so unrecoverable and so unredeemable?
Meanwhile, at the time of Smith's arrest, the new zeitgeist of ascendant conservatism burst forth with juicy commentary, and it continues to vent its hot anger. Not long after the murders, the first sound-bite anthropologist to the microphone was Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who observed that Smith's crime "vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting" from liberalism. He suggested that, in order to prevent future Susan Smiths, citizens should "vote Republican." Since then, many people in Smith's hometown of Union have responded accordingly. It is a simple crime, they say, and it deserves a simple justice. Some of them gathered at the courthouse before her first bond hearing to howl their righteousness before the television cameras.
"Baby-killing bitch!" shouted a woman proud to identify herself as Helen Pike. One bystander wanted her burned. Another noted that there was a fine old pecan tree beside the courthouse. When Susan Smith appeared in the doorway, the people surged forward while deputies scrambled to hold the crowd at bay.
These folks have retreated to their radios where South Carolina's AM stations still crackle with cries for her blood. Not long ago, Prosecutor Thomas Pope thrilled conservatives by saying he'd seek to electrocute Susan Smith. To lend moral untouchability to these voices, her former husband and the father of the murdered children now says he wants her dead. Conservatives from all over sent in their milk money to help pay for her execution -- sort of an expression of communitarian thousand-points-of-lights voluntarism in an age of empty coffers. In the meantime, though, the local press in South Carolina has begun to publish fragments from Smith's life. Slowly but surely, the cliches are dissolving and another, more complicated story is appearing -- a more human story. It seems that the Junior Civitans president cum child killer did not pop out of the ground like a warrior from a dragon's tooth.
Once upon a time she had a past. Susan Smith was born to a mill worker and volunteer fireman named Harry Vaughn and his wife Linda. When Susan was a little girl, Mom separated from her blue-collar husband. Harry went to live in a flophouse where, in 1978, he killed himself. Soon Linda was seen with one of the town's finer citizens, Beverly Russell, and later moved herself and daughter into a higher station by marrying him. Bev, as his friends know him, is a dream: a stockbroker, a Republican conservative and a ranking member of the local Christian Coalition.
When Susan was 13 years old, she tried to kill herself. At age 16, in 1988, she reported to a guidance counselor at school that her stepfather was sexually abusing her. After Mom intervened, no charges were filed against her husband. The following year, Susan Smith tried once again to kill herself. In 1991, she married a grocery store clerk and had two children. They divorced last September, and Susan took up with Tom Findlay, the rich son of a corporate president.
But Findlay ended the relationship by writing her an otherwise innocent letter, saying he wasn't ready to assume the job of stepfather. Not long afterward, at age 23, she murdered her two boys. Since then, local newspapers have successfully argued for the release of the papers surrounding Smith's complaint about her stepfather. They confirm her charges. In a signed document, Beverly Russell admits to abusing his stepdaughter.
South Carolinians are also buzzing about a separate file maintained by the state's Department of Social Services, containing its own investigation into Beverly Russell. That file has been lost. A former neighbor of Linda's told me that "Bev was a good old boy, everybody's friend, so nobody would ever want to say anything bad about him."
People are beginning to hear these fragments of Susan Smith's story and piece them together. If there is a context to Susan Smith's life, maybe it wasn't Gingrich's oft-sighted McGovernik counterculturalism. Maybe it was right-wing hypocrisy. The folks who knew her best must be asking themselves: Where did Susan Smith learn the art of sacrificing her children in order to marry up?
Not long ago, Susan's mother explained to the Boston Globe how she dealt with the revelations about her husband: "I haven't read a newspaper or watched a television program, and I don't want to. I'm just going to remember the things as they were and not let any of this trash change that."
There's a lot of denying going on in Union and elsewhere. I'm from South Carolina and have spent time near Smith's part of the state. In a small town like Union, people know. And they knew about Susan Smith's private life long before this tragedy unfolded. When folks talked about the little high school girl who had tried to poison herself, what else was whispered along with those conversations? How many people knew what was happening in the conservatively correct household of Bev Russell and kept those facts muted in the hush of gossip.
Whenever I see that clip of the crowd at the jailhouse screaming for her head, I ask myself a very hard question: Just whose guilt, besides Susan Smith's, would be extinguished with her death? Suddenly, that mysterious parable "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson reads like a CNN transcript. For the conservatives now in power, blame is always simple. It lies with the individual and only the individual. That makes crime and punishment very easy -- so much so one wonders why a writer like Dostoyevsky would waste his time plumbing such moral shallows.
For liberalism, blame has increasingly become a simple matter as well. Where liberalism once used to let the individual off too easy by blaming the "system" or the larger "society," now they don't even bother to do that. There no longer seems to be a political constituency for reflecting upon the blame in ourselves.
Yet if there is one aspect of old liberalism that should be preserved during its excommunication, it is the willingness to contemplate even the most horrific and to seek to understand why things happen. Whatever liberalism should be, it's not joining in the ululations of the jailhouse mob or waiting on hold, as one Greenville woman did, just to hiss on the radio that "they ought to put her in a car, weld the doors shut, and drop her in the same lake."
Liberalism shouldn't mean escape from punishment either. Susan Smith's crime is of Aristotelian scope, and she must be punished severely. But liberalism is the voice that restrains us from dashing to the pecan tree with pike and torch or applauding those who do. It is the voice that beseeches us to understand how Susan Smith became the murderer of her own children. It is the voice, finally, that leads us past the zeal to punish and toward the hope of forgiveness.
The politics of caricature make those remedies seem like polar opposites. But punishment and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, each gives the other meaning. Punishment without the possibility of forgiveness forecloses the future and obliterates the past. Punishment alone freezes our hearts and minds in an artificial present -- the foul and brutish moment of the crime itself.
The current brand of hothead conservatism wants us to focus only on the need for punishment. Ironically, this is the flip side of all that victimology they so rightly ridicule on their radios. The professional victims of our culture are stuck in the moment of their greatest humiliation -- unable to move beyond the rape, the racist slur, some bitter historical indignity. They remain fixed there, refusing to budge from their ignoble position.
To punish Susan Smith fairly is to hold out, even to her, the possibility of forgiveness. That is not to equate pity with clemency. At a minimum, her punishment should mean a lifetime without liberty, and it is well under way. Now that she has sobered up from her madness, acquaintances say, Susan Smith sits in her cell, dividing her time between taking anti-suicide drugs and writing desperate letters to her dead children.
That image paralyzes the mind too and, as Aristotle wrote some two millennia ago, it moves me toward pity. Once upon a time, liberalism provided us with away to look upon such horror, mete out punishment and move on toward forgiveness. That unpopular idea is worth clinging to while liberalism lies down for its long, long nap. Otherwise, we must all join the AM rabble who force themselves to stand forever at the shore watching those panicking boys so that they can stoke the satisfaction of their unabating rage. Jack Hitt is a contributing editor to Harper's magazine and Lingua Franca.