Thursday, June 01, 2006

Two Trials

I have lived in two large cities while each hosted a nationally scrutinized trial: Los Angeles in 1995 during the O.J. Simpson trial, and Houston in 2006 during the Enron trial, from which several guilty verdicts came last week. They provided quite different experiences.

The Enron trial, by which I mean principally the case brought against Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling was, well, businesslike. The Houston media covered it extensively, of course, but one didn’t get the sense that the entire city was hanging on the result. Don’t get me wrong; there was high drama. And I have a feeling there would have been outrage if Lay and Skilling had been acquitted (and there may still be outrage if their sentences are perceived as being way too light). After all, thousands of people lost millions in retirement savings due to Enron’s collapse. But I perceived an air of semi-calm confidence among citizens during the trial that the justice system was doing what it was supposed to do and would find its way to a reasonable conclusion.

The Simpson trial was a complete spectacle, a combination of trial-of-the-century and Desperate Housewives extended final episode. In the midst of it I wrote the following in my weekly essay:

“This trial reminds me of the Anita Hill - Clarence Thomas hearings on Capitol Hill several years ago which, in Peggy Noonan’s words, were like a three-day commercial for term limits. Something about being on television causes people to posture, grandstand, preen, and very often make idiots of themselves. The O.J. trial has sunk very quickly to the level of burlesque (have you heard the sidebar conversations? I’ve seen more maturity between the four and five-year olds on my block), and much of the pathetic spectacle resulted because both judge and lawyers knew they were becoming CELEBRITIES and therefore ceased striving to be HEROES” (10/1/95).

But underneath the burlesque was the ugly reality of racial division. The racial tension in L.A. during the trial and after the not-guilty verdict was palpable. In my multi-racial congregation it was less so but still significant. Our congregation’s whites and blacks tacitly agreed not to talk about it. I remember the day after the verdict, which pleased many blacks, offended many whites, and angered many blacks about the whites being offended; I was riding the exercise bike at Bally’s gym, pedaling hard and tilting my head to the right to exhale. A young black man was riding next to me. He said, not angrily but curtly, “Would you mind not breathing on me?” I felt that comment was hugely symbolic, and I remember thinking as I turned to breathe on the other side that this racial tension is often just below the surface and will not be overcome easily. [In that sense, the academy award winning movie “Crash,” set in L.A., though fictional, was quite realistic].

So the Enron trial was fairly “smooth” in that sense. Most people seem to feel the verdicts are just. The message is that corporate wrongdoing will be punished. As for the message of the O.J. verdict, to me clearly it was that racial division and differences are deep and wide. Have we made much progress in the last eleven years? I’d like to think so, but probably not. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina brought them to the surface again. The Kingdom of God is advancing in many ways, in some more slowly than in others. Let’s do our part to speed it up.


Post a Comment

<< Home