Long ago and far away in the pre-Facebook days of the O.J. Simpson trial, I found myself in a heated discussion with a co-worker who was convinced that the Juice was innocent, despite his history of violent behavior, his clear motive and weak alibi, and the virtual mountain of DNA evidence. But no matter how persuasively I argued the facts, she remained unconvinced. She finally summarized her argument by saying, “It can’t have been O.J. It’s always the person you least suspect.”
Well, not to be rude, but, no, it isn’t always the person you least suspect. Certainly it’s not the person I least suspect. If it were, then the queen of England would be responsible for every homicide in the past 30 years. Elizabeth’s a plucky gal, sure, but she has no plausible motive, and she doesn’t get around that much.
Of course, if you’re watching “Castle” or “CSI: Boise” or some such, then, yes, it is the person you least suspect. If it weren’t, the show would be over before the first commercial break. Real-life crimes aren’t usually that interesting, because the killer is almost always the person you most suspect. The butler probably didn’t do it, unless he’s a really disgruntled butler. But my O.J. defender provided prima facie evidence that how we process events in the real world is often molded by the context of what we read, hear and watch.
There’s really no way to avoid that.
If you’ve never been involved in arresting actual bad guys, then it’s no surprise that your default intellectual position is to rely on the vicarious perp walks served up by old episodes of “Law and Order.” And awkward teens with no idea how to get the girl can watch “Pitch Perfect” to pick up some ideas. Generally speaking, this kind of social cueing is harmless and can even be helpful. Our fiction intake fills in the gaps in our practical experience, which is why it’s essential that we pay attention to the things we include in our media diet.
I thought about this when I stumbled on an Internet graphic featuring a man’s face alongside a famous movie quote. “He’s a silent guardian,” it read. “A watchful protector. A dark knight.” Only the person pictured wasn’t Batman; it was Christopher Dorner, the real-world ex-cop who allegedly murdered four people before he was burned alive in a police standoff.
The late Dorner has legions of fans who have taken to Twitter to herald their champion. They consider him Batman, Dirty Harry, Rambo and all the vigilante heroes of the silver screen rolled into one and come to life. If you read his lengthy manifesto, he fancied himself as that kind of icon, and many who share his opinions have bought into the fantasy.
But this is reality. It’s not at all romantic and too tragic for words.
If the reports are true, Dorner shot and killed four innocent people who aren’t actors who get up and walk away when the cameras are turned off. Most people recognize that, but it’s more than a little disturbing to see so many who don’t.
This isn’t a call to turn off your TVs or boycott Batman movies. It’s a plea for perspective. It’s a reminder that we live in a world with real bad guys who don’t deserve our applause, real good guys who don’t get the applause they deserve, and a desperate need for more people who can tell the difference between the two.
That’s why I’m more than willing to give the queen of England the benefit of the doubt.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.