Before we move entirely away from the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story and on to the next sensational news event, let us take a few things with us. First, let me say the alleged crime committed by Dominique Strauss-Kahn in a New York hotel has pitted American culture against French culture in more than a few ways. America has stressed itself as more righteous and supportive in terms of women’s rights issues and around sexual harassment and France has proclaimed itself a nation with respectful media as well as a nation sensitive to the rights of the accused. I know very little about French media and even less about their justice system but I do know a thing or two about the rights of the accused in America; they have none. When European countries began questioning the fairness of the perp-walk used on suspects in the U.S. a number of state-side papers acknowledged the perp-walk as part of American culture.
It seems, as a nation, we are obsessed with people getting their just due. We balk at the idea of people being exonerated, we support the death penalty, and we hold grudges against individuals who serve prison terms. When criminals are brought to justice, serving time does little to satisfy our thirst for revenge. They get out, they can’t vote, they can’t find jobs, and as a result, they barely, if ever reintegrate into society. They are kept at the margins and if another crime is committed we look to them first as suspects. In short, they carry a Sacrlet letter. The perp-walk, or the act of parading an arrested suspect in front of the media, is used as another form of justice. It allows the victims and society to know that the police bureau is actively investigating the crime and that they have strong leads. So in essence, our problem is not only with those convicted but with those who are likely to commit crimes as well.
Remember the 2002 film, Minority Report? It was a futuristic film about a police squad designed to stop crimes before they were committed using systems called “precogs.” These precogs were able to make decisions based on the cognitive thinking of individuals who wanted to commit crimes. Whether they had done anything or not wasn’t the problem. Anyway, in the film the program was determined to be faulty because there was no real way to predict crime and those who thought criminal things, were simply people with criminal thoughts, nothing more, nothing less. Why haven’t we figured this out yet?
So when the French parade around ideas about the possible innocence of their diplomat it isn’t simply to save face as a nation but a reflection of their own practices. In France, it is illegal to take a picture of someone in handcuffs if they have not been convicted of the crime. That’s an important rule. Pictures, film, stereotypes all contribute to our ideas about guilt. They tell us who is more likely to be guilty and who is more likely to commit crimes. In our world, where every other news story is about a suspect, an alleged criminal, it has become practically impossible to understand something as simple as “innocence.” For us, the perp-walk is just another action pushing us towards a guilty verdict before anything solid has even taken place. I’m with the French on this one.