“Caylee’s Law” and the Specter of Civil Breakdown

by Patrick J. Deneen on July 11, 2011 · 10 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

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Alexandria, VA In the wake of the “not guilty” finding in the Casey Anthony trial, large numbers of outraged individuals have begun a campaign for the creation of various State and even a Federal version of “Caylee’s Law.” In addition to such an effort in the state of Florida, similar legislation is being explored in states such as Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia. This law would promulgate strict requirements under which parents or guardians would be expected to report a missing and deceased child to police. Under such a law, it can be presumed, such actions as that of Casey Anthony would have led to a guilty verdict – if not for murder, at least on the scandal of a parent failing to report a missing child.

The law is clearly a response to the outrage and anger felt by thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people in the wake of the Casey Anthony verdict. Yet, what would be the expected efficacy of such a law? Can it really be expected that it would deter what must be a infinitesimally small number of parents who would not immediately call the police at the slightest suspicion of a missing child? (Let’s face it – if anything, most parents are likely to contact authorities before checking all the likely places a child might be).

The pressure to pass such a law is most obviously an expression of thwarted vengeance, an outburst of outrage and frustration toward someone the public believes got away not only with murder, but the murder of her own small child. This is an understandable human response.

But it seems also plausible that the pressure to pass such a law reflects more deeply the anxieties and fears of many that the fabric of informal social norms have become so frayed that only the impotent passage of largely pointless laws can give some comfort in the belief that there is some kind of replacement. What strikes one about Anthony’s is how relatively “normal” they are in today’s America. The Anthony’s had moved to Florida from Ohio, indicating a normal “mobile” American lifestyle. They live in a suburban neighborhood in Orlando, one of innumerable such “communities” where people can live in relative anonymity amid proximate families. As of 2006, there were 12.9 million single parents raising over 21 million children. Some four million of those single parents live with their parents. The stories of Casey’s insecure employment history is not unusual for many young people today, particularly for under-educated single mothers. The anxiety provoked by the Casey Anthony story is not born of the perception of someone so wildly different from the way many Americans live today; it arises from the deeper perception that this is the way that many more of us are likely to live in America today.

In his recent book The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama seeks to explore the question of how more advanced industrial societies have moved away from “kinship relations” of more “primitive” societies to more complex societies of strangers in which our relationships are based on impersonal legal and economic relationships. Fukuyama – still evincing his characteristic progressive worldview – regards these advances as an inevitability of evolution itself, a sign of our greater advancement. But these very “advances” render us increasingly strangers even to those near to us – not only our neighbors, but our own children and parents. Our liberation from “kinship” is based upon our increased ability to artificially create radical forms of isolation from even those kinship relations. As Fukuyama correctly notes, “that individualism seems today like a solid core of our economic and political behavior is only because we have developed institutions that override our more naturally communal instincts” (29).

The calls for lawmakers to “do something” in the wake of the Casey Anthony “not guilty” verdict shows the limits of our impersonal age. Lacking confidence in the remnants of the social norms (not legalisms) upon which those kinship cultures were based, we turn now to the law to instruct fellow citizens how to behave with their children. The passage of such laws, far from indicating a triumph of our greater civility, reveals its unceasing attenuation and even breakdown. Our anxieties will only be stoked, not relieved, and each “solution” will only exacerbate the root causes of our deeper alienation.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Lincoln Hunter July 11, 2011 at 4:57 pm

I don’t think this law is an ‘understandable human response.’ It is crazed stupidity on a mass scale.
Predictable, maybe, but not understandable.

avatar dave July 11, 2011 at 8:22 pm

@ Lincoln Hunter, to me it is understandable – me, who has come to think we respond to almost every social and cultural problem with laws.

Laws are backed by force and coercion, needless to say, which has also led me to believe we tend towards aggression. We like forcing people to do stuff. I don’t know why – maybe we’ve become so powerless a vicarious expression of power – of any type – has overwhelming appeal. It’s something I do not have the mind to grasp, so I can only guess.

I don’t think the response is to delegate some new responsibility to the police. I think the way to respond is for people to engage their neighbors. That’s not what happens when we get angry. That’s only happens when we recognize that a little girls disappearance and death is a tragedy. The whole thing is heartbreaking.

What we do not do when we respond with laws, Professor, is wonder about ourselves and who it is down the street that might be having a hard time, and what if anything we might be able to do to help out. Nor do we question why so many families are coming apart. We just shove it off to the cops. As you point out, fear is there, the response -well, not too much. I think you nailed it.

My last name, Lincoln Hunter, is Walsh. It’s not significant. Or I’m not. Just thought I’d start trying to match the courtesy of the site.

avatar Lincoln Hunter July 12, 2011 at 10:04 am

Mr Walsh and Mr Dineen: I apologize for my lapse of civility. I have become a cranky old man with a temper slightly less short than my attention span.
Mr Dineen has written a sterling essay and I have now quarrel with it.
The word ‘understandable’ did set me off because I understand very little that I see, hear or read in today’s America. Maybe that’s why I feel like a stranger in my own country.
Once more, my apology. Won’t happen again.
Regards

avatar D.W. Sabin July 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Never, ever apologize for being cranky. The moment demands it. Anybody who aint cranky in this septic carnival must be brain dead…or perhaps over-medicated.

avatar COL Goff July 14, 2011 at 8:28 am

This is all just another symptom of systemic collapse. Our society is like a diseased organism. We have lost even the will to replace ourselves and I fear the west has failed and that it is far too late to do anything about it. Already we are fading out from most centers of civilization in Europe. Perhaps these seeds were sown with the victory of democracy over aristocracy in the French Revolution and the First and Second World Wars or industrialism of agrarianism in the War for Southern Independence… we could speculate on that point, but it is enough to say that nowhere in this land is well cared for anymore and that few people can be bothered with the toil of caring for anything… We all want freedom from labor, freedom from toil, freedom from ourselves and from each other. It is a epidemic mental disorder we suffer from.

avatar Jason Joseph July 14, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Patrick Deneen’s cultural analysis of this situation is well balanced by the Carson Holloway’s constitutional analysis:
http://www.catholicvote.org/discuss/index.php?p=18743&cpage=2#comment-45634

avatar WJD July 15, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Two quick points:

First, isn’t this whole case a product of an impersonal society? How many of us had any personal connection to the Anthony family? Despite the great outrage that this case generated, it is for most people a distant issue in which it is easy to project general ideas of justice onto a situation that will not require the costs and discernment associated with participatory institutions (one of which, the jury, did not find sufficient evidence to merit a guilty sentence). Indeed, a ridiculous, impersonal law would seem to be a logical response to what for most people is an impersonal situation. By no means to I mean to downplay the tragedy of Caylee’s death, but merely point out that we must trust that the local justice system, rather than mass opinion and the state it undergirds, dealt with it appropriately.

That being said, I’m not sure if kinship relationships are necessarily the appropriate remedy for situations such as this. Indeed, much of the outrage over the case seems to stem from the perception that Casey Anthony’s family was lying to prosecutors in order to protect her. This is not an uncommon practice in those societies Fukuyama describes, as evidenced by the Karzai family. For that matter, would we have been more morally comfortable had the Anthony family not contacted the authorities at all, but held an internal process by which some elder member of the family judged and sentenced Casey? Yes, strangers from the state were involved, but the impartiality or isolation from local prejudice is the strongest moral pillar of the modern justice system, even if it cannot be taken to the ideal limits a Kantian would propose.

The universalisation of this case, as perpetuated by mass media, is indeed a problem. Yet it is not the social norms of kinship cultures which would be the most appropriate response, but support for the local civil institution: namely, the jury. Crimes should be treated as matters which harm persons and communities, to be dealt with by those they effect, rather than becoming universal crimes against justice for all mankind, including far off legislatures, to pass judgment upon. Indeed, I believe it was Rousseau, one of the harbingers of our impersonal age who wrote “Beware the man who loves the Turk but cannot love his neighbor.” Thus, we should have faith in those who were intimately bound to the Anthony case will deal with this far better than we who are on the other end of the TV screen. This is what we should take to heart, rather than pinning for the mores of the noble savage.

avatar JonF July 17, 2011 at 5:50 pm

I don’t see the Doom Of Civilization in this. Bad verdicts, and vengeful mobs, are as old as law and justice in human affairs. Lizzie Borden almost certainly got away with murder, and so did a lot of lynch mobs back in the day.
At the end of the day you have to accept that humans will occasionally just get it wrong, and that other humans will shut down their brains and react with their hearts.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins July 18, 2011 at 10:28 pm

This is a case in point why courtroom proceedings should NOT be televised. Because a bunch of mindless talking heads, without or without law degrees, but all playing to the lowest common denominator for ratings, not for good law, have convinced millions of brain-dead couch potatoes that they are now experts on the case, AND, although not part of any kinship group, have a PERSONAL (if vicarious) stake in the outcome… all kinds of people feel qualified to either form lynch mobs or take apart and restructure the applicable law. For Graceless Nancy, there must be an Eleventh Circle of Hell.

I’m not saying that citizens are not qualified to comment on the law of the land. I do all the time, and I do not have a law degree. But I have learned my way around a law library, and I do read court decisions I want to comment on, from beginning to end. I don’t spout off after watch a mindless sound byte.

Remember after the O.J. trial, when Fred Anderson’s father called for a law to provide for conviction with less than a unanimous jury??? Aside from being an unhallowed perversion of a very good legal protection for the innocent, it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference in the O.J. case! It’s not like the jury stood 10-2 for conviction, they unanimously acquitted! The French 3-judge no-jury system might have resulted in a different verdict, but who wants that? One bad case can generate a tremendous amount of bad law if we listen to such voices.

If this law is passed in any jurisdiction (I hope it isn’t) it will probably never be used to prosecute a Casey Anthony for not reporting that a Caylee is missing. It WILL be used by some overzealous social worker to prosecute some parent who let their ten year old go play baseball with some friends at a park half a mile from home, on the ground that the parent should have known the INSTANT something happened to the child, rather than, when the child was an hour later than usual getting home for dinner. (I’m old enough to remember when we all went out to play, rather than waiting for mommy to set up “play dates.” God, I hate that phrase.

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