How much we wanted Amanda Knox to get away with it
US citizen Amanda Knox has just been found guilty of the murder, in Italy in 2007, of Meredith Kercher. The verdict overturns an earlier acquittal, which itself overturned an initial guilty verdict. There may be yet a further appeal.
Why are we such curious bystanders of this extremely protracted and still unfinished drama? We, the public, can hardly claim to know what really happened around the death of Meredith Kercher. The point of hearing the story is not so that we can – at a distance and in partial ignorance – come to a view about the judicial process. What is keeping us interested in this blood-soaked event is something far more personal. We’re at some level asking ourselves whether a ‘normal’ person could ever kill, and if so, what their punishment should rightly be. We’re also wondering if we might not want the odd person to get away with murder.
We are used to wanting killers to be brought to justice – end of story. This is our normal response to almost all criminal cases: we take pleasure and satisfaction when we see the guilty party hauled off to jail. Our hearts rest easily. We might even think the life sentence was a little too lenient. But, in certain cases, the most interesting ones emotionally, part of us wonders whether we really do want the killer to suffer the full force of justice. We come up against a highly uncomfortable, nagging, and most peculiar thought: we could in some part of our minds – sometimes – want someone to get away with murder.
It isn’t that we have suddenly decided that murdering people is OK or that we have no sympathy for the murdered party. It is more that we can, in some ways, understand how easy it would be to do a very bad thing and not quite mean it and then wish desperately to avoid having to pay the full price for the misdeed. It has been calculated that a full third of the adult married population of the UK has been unfaithful. This constitutes an enormous number of people with close-up experience of being liars, people who say they were in place X when they were in fact happily in Y, people who hide evidence, delete phone messages, wash away their clothes to get rid of smells and stains and attend functions with innocent expressions on their faces while deep down dark lies slumber in their souls. Very few of us kill, but very many of us know what it is to want to evade justice. However theoretically strong our commitment to the law might be, we aren’t unacquainted with wanting to sidestep its harsh logic.
It’s this confused desire to get away with it which Amanda Knox evokes in us (Oscar Pistorius might do the same) – and which is what makes our response to the case ‘complex’ and compelling. So what is it about Amanda in particular that makes her so different from the average criminal we are happy to see sent down? Why do we not simply hate her and forget her?
The first, slightly cynical answer is to point to her appearance. But, given that most of us aren’t as pretty as she is, the catalyst for identification must lie elsewhere. It’s rather that she seems, to use that banal but powerful word, ‘normal’ – and most of us (even if this isn’t always quite the case) view ourselves as belonging within this sympathetic, flattering category. The gnarled, crazy-looking killer does us a favour: he or she spares us the difficult thought that we might have some things in common with him or her. Yet we can’t escape from a sense that Amanda is truly a ‘bit like us’: she likes to go shopping, she comes across as vulnerable in letters to her mother, she has a passion for jogging, sometimes she drinks too much, she likes her family dog, she has a teddy bear, she had a soft spot for Italian ice cream, she reads George Eliot, she cried during ET. And yet, at a key moment one dark Perugia night, it seems like she may also have managed to kill someone.
A terrifying but compelling possibility comes into view: normal people, people like her and people like you and me, are capable of doing very bad things indeed and we do them a little by accident, without quite meaning to, not out of deep seated abstract ‘evil’ but out of the common variety of frailties that we all know in their less dramatic forms from occasions when we get furious with someone, or get carried away with desire. And then, because a sorry wouldn’t fix things, the killer (who is, for our unconscious, also us) tells a big lie and hopes that they won’t have to be shouted at by an angry spouse or packed away to a cold prison for 25 years.
Previously, we wanted Amanda to be innocent to reassure ourselves of the impossibility that we could ever kill. But now that she has been found guilty, we want something even odder: we want her to get away with it because we too would like to get away with certain (much less, but still significant) bad things we have done.
This is a case with a moral: people involved in terrible deeds are not entirely unlike oneself and they are not entirely horrible either. We are all capable, under the right (or very wrong) circumstances, of pretty much anything, from murder to sex crimes to theft to mass slaughter. Murderers do not belong to a different species. This insight doesn’t mean the end of a commitment to law and order. Rather, it signals the beginning of a far less often mentioned emotion: mercy – defined as a compassion based on recognising a similarity between our sins and those of others.
Being merciful doesn’t have to mean failing to grasp the seriousness of what happened. We at the Philosophers’ Mail believe firmly that killers should go to prison and stay there quite a while. But we believe equally that killers, and their awkwardly near-identical twins, everyday liars like you and me, should also and always be candidates for mercy.