Crime may not pay like it used to, but the way it is described in the media has not changed much throughout the millennia.
The Roman satirist Juvenal reminds us that “it is to their crimes that men owe their pleasure-grounds and palaces. . . . All Rome today is in the circus.”
For Romans, the circus was no metaphor; it was their YouTube in the round. Privileged citizens watched the slaughter with amusement and impunity; yet the circus may be a fitting description of how our society today looks upon and treats the dissemination of information on crime.
In this context, a comparison between two very different societies — those of the United States and Japan — might shed some light on the basic differences between them.
The former society is riddled with violent crime; the latter, relatively crime free. The streets of large American cities are unsafe, particularly for women and people living in poorer districts; the streets of Japanese cities hold no fears for anyone. Well over 2 million people in America are presently behind bars; Japanese jails house about 80,000.
Not only is there a vast difference in personal safety (to my mind, one of the greatest freedoms that any democratic society can offer its citizens), but the treatment of crime in the media — particularly on television — couldn’t be more different.
Take the example of the bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 that killed 168 people, many of them children, and injured 680 others. Two members of a rightwing militia group were convicted; and one of them, Timothy McVeigh, a former U.S. Army soldier decorated for service in the Gulf War, was executed on June 11, 2001.
In Japan, on March 20, not a month before the Oklahoma City attack, members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult released sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subways, resulting in at least 12 deaths and upward of 5,000 injuries. Some cult members, including its leader, Shoko Asahara, have been tried, found guilty and sentenced to death.
These two crimes are similar in their horrendous scale and effect on society, yet the media in the two countries treated them in a vastly different manner.
In Japan, the media — as in all cases of brutal and unexpected crime — immediately focuses on every aspect. Stabbings in schools, assaults on streets, rape cases in universities . . . these are all accompanied by an outpouring of public grief, outrage, apology and sociological analysis not only in print but also on television’s news, talk and variety shows.
Additionally, the approach in Japan is almost always uniform: What is it in our national makeup that has brought about this awful crime?
Of course, the individual character of the criminal and the circumstances leading up to the crime are discussed. The criminal’s personal effects are divulged. Perhaps there is some clue there as to the criminal’s motivation. Invariably, though, the conclusion is that this crime tells us something about where Japanese society is today. The criminal becomes a representative of all Japanese, who are, in some way, meant by the media to feel responsible — if not guilty.
I recall an incident in the mid-’90s when a newly married Japanese bride disappeared on her honeymoon with her Japanese husband in Queensland, Australia. It was feared she had been abducted, and the state police went into overdrive trying to track her and the abductor down. Then, a few days later, she reappeared, totally unharmed, declaring that she’d had second thoughts about her new husband and had taken off into the bush rather than spending a night in a hotel beside hubby.
The police were friendly and courteous, and the whole affair (including, I suspect, the marriage) was considered over before it started.
But then, the very next day, a Japanese movie-producer friend called me to say that he was really sorry about the meiwaku (trouble) that lady had caused me as an Australian citizen.
“Meiwaku?” I said. “What do you mean? No one in Australia has any hard feelings over that.”
“But I want to apologize to you for her behavior,” he insisted.
I kid you not. He felt guilty for what she did. If she had been an Australian who did a similar thing in Japan, Australians would never have felt the need to apologize for her. Quite the opposite — they would have said “Good on yer” and had a whip around to help her pay for her divorce.
After the sarin attack in Tokyo, talk-show pundits agonized about how science graduates from top Japanese universities, as a number of the terrorists were, could have come to commit such a heinous act. Is there something wrong with our educational system? Are we bringing up our children in the correct way? In other words, by feeling responsible themselves as members of Japanese society, they were able to focus on positive steps to improve aspects of society that might have led to the crime.
In the United States, the august “Theory of the Bad Apple” holds sway. Serial killers, for instance, are seen as isolated, perverted individuals lacking in human decency and compassion. Their very existence proves to Americans the essential apple-pie goodness of the vast majority of their compatriots.
As a result, the crimes of Timothy McVeigh and his collaborator (or collaborators) were discussed and analyzed as aberrations. U.S. society was not prepared to scrutinize and eventually rout armed rightwing militias, which still remain the greatest single terrorist threat to “the homeland.”
Who is to blame, the bent individual — “one of them” — or all society — “one of us”?
Clearly there is an element of truth in both approaches to crime. Yet, considering its gross presence on American streets compared to the safety of Japanese cities, I would suggest that the latter approach is the one that works best for all of us.
When a reprehensible crime occurs, we should ask ourselves over and over again: How did we do this? How did we allow this to happen? How can we all prevent this from happening again? The old blame game proves an ineffective ruse, unless we turn the interrogation light onto ourselves in the process.
All the world today may be, to borrow Juvenal’s phrase, “in the circus.” But the difference between our world and that of ancient Rome is that there are no more spectators. We have all been thrown into the ring. We can all be victims at any time, as we can all be perpetrators for the things done in our name.
Recognizing that at least allows us to take the first all-important step out of the ring.