Thursday, April 10, 2014

Race, Gender, Love, and Oscar Pistorius

 O.J. Simpson's defense attorney, Robert Shapiro, has already weighed in with two comments:  That he withholds judgement (withholding judgement while watching a trial is the way to get to the truth) and that he never hesitates to ask a client whether he or she actually committed the crime or not.  Shapiro offers no opinion on the guilt or innocence of Oscar Pistorius.  And his advice for the downfallen South African "blade runner?"  It is what he tells any accused celebrity:  "To keep his mouth shut."
"You talk, I walk," is what he'd do if it were all up to him.  
Pistorius has motor-mouthed his way through most of the trial.
I'll take Shapiro's advice and withhold judgement on whether Pistorius's  killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was premeditated or not.  I've seen enough to believe that Pistorius feels horrified and sickened by what he did, that he profoundly regrets it--weeping until he chokes and veins bulge, sweating through his shirt, leaking tears and snot, vomiting copiously.  But I'm not convinced that he'd be able to restrain his impulse to shoot again if he got angry and had a handgun.  

The facts I keep shaking around in my head, and rolling out in front of myself like so many dice, are these:

•Pistorius has had a number of violent encounters with his own impulses, including falling asleep at the wheel on a rampaging drive to settle an argument with a girlfriend.

•Pistorius threatened a former athlete, Marc Bachelor, that he'd "break your legs!" and the incident involved a woman.

•Pistorius, like many South Africans, sleeps with a gun under his bed, because he is terrified of an intruder, and more terrified when his prostheses are off, as they are when he goes to bed at night.

•Pistorius lived in a fortress-like gated community with an almost spotless security record, but such communities are never immune to violence, especially in South Africa, where gruesomely violent rapes, dismemberments, decapitations, are reported daily.  There are at least fifty murders per day in the country.

•Pistorius's mother used to tell him daily, "your brother puts on his shoes, and you put on your legs!" and he feels she was wise, gently pushing him to do his best.  She told him, "train, but don't strain."  Did she push too much? Any mother will tell you this is the hardest question to answer, or to answer honestly.

•Pistorius was "besotted" with his girlfriend of three months, Reeva Steenkamp.  

•She expressed fear of his jealousy, and wanted protection, not jealousy, from him.

•It was Valentine's Day.  

•An experienced, 67-year-old black, female judge will decide the fate of a young white man in South Africa

•Reeva Steenkamp's mother says she cannot tell whether Pistorius is lying.  She sits behind him and watches him in the courtroom every day.

•The neighbors insist that they heard a woman's high-pitched screams around the time of the gunshots, and believe that they were Reeva Steenkamp's screams, and that he knew he was shooting his girlfriend.

•Margie Orford, an award-winning, white South African crime writer, says Pistorius's defense relies on the idea of a "third body," by which she means "the imagined figure of a threatening black stranger that has driven many South Africans into fortress-like housing estates."  She sees middle-class whites carrying guns and panic buttons as being trapped in trauma, the "pernicious" apartheid narrative of "swart gevaar" (the black peril), as justification for extreme violence.
She says it recalls the old macho attitude of "it's either us or them".

•It's not easy to get statistics on race and crime in South Africa.  Google that phrase, and you get Oscar Pistorius.

The more I roll out these dice, the less they add up, so I try to imagine scenarios that seem likely to me.  Pistorius's threat to Marc Bachelor ("I'll break your legs!") and his own lack of legs, and fear that he cannot protect himself or a girlfriend without them, might have been enough to fuel an intentional murder if Ms. Steenkamp had been provoked enough by his jealous rages to have snapped, "I'd rather have a man with real legs!"  or something of that sort.  

Alternatively, what if those high-pitched screams came from Pistorius himself, not Reeva?  What if he really didn't know she was in that bathroom?  What if the moment he realized what he'd done, he howled? He does say that's what happened.  At the extremes of human experience, vocal ranges are also extreme, so that it can be hard to tell whether a man or a woman is screaming.  The greater the anguish, the higher--or the lower--the pitch of the voice.  It would not surprise me if a neighbor, hearing a man shriek in horror, thought that the screaming voice belonged to a woman.

But no matter what the judge decides, we'll probably never really know.  To me, the O.J. Simpson case was much clearer--so clear, that after he got off scot-free, New York magazine boasted a cover with him smiling and waving bloody hands. 

No one will smile when Pistorius is judged, whether he gets off or not. I can't now think of a job I'd envy less than that of Judge Thokozile Masipais.  No matter how much she has seen, and thought, and done in her life, no matter how carefully she deliberates, no matter what she decides--she cannot emerge untormented from this case.

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