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Amanda Knox: Stop Making Sense

It is human nature to try to make sense of nonsense.  In this day and age, every time we hear of another bizarre crime, our minds go to work trying to figure out how such things happen.  How could a family man imprison three women for ten years in the middle of Cleveland, Ohio?  We try to find the reasons.  We engage in counterfactual thinking, consoling ourselves that the unforeseeable was foreseeable.  If only the girls had not climbed into the kidnapper’s truck…  If only the police had acted on the previous 911 calls…  We don’t know that the horror could have been prevented, but we wish.

It is the same with the bizarre circumstances that compose the case of Meredith Kercher’s tragic death, followed by the unjust arrests and convictions of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito in Perugia, Italy, in 2007.  The murder itself was not exactly bizarre — it was “only” horrific.  A sad fact of life on this planet is that individual women are murdered by individual men every single day.

The outlandish aspects of this case occurred after the discovery of the homicide, when a rush to judgment led to the imprisonment of three innocent people, two of whom were held in prison for four years before being released on acquittal.  The level of debate about the case is a testament to how difficult it is to find reasons for what happened.  For over five years, millions of words have been written online in efforts to determine what motivated both the offenders and the victims.

What motivated the victims?  Wait — we don’t ask that question anymore, do we?  No, we don’t, and with good reason.

For at least the past four decades, our culture has been working on understanding and accepting that victims do not contribute to their own assaults, rapes, kidnappings, or murders through their personal choices, behaviors and roles.  To claim otherwise is to blame the victim, that is, to imply that he had some responsibility for what befell him.  Again, this is counterfactual – we wish that the circumstances could have been different, and the crime avoided.  

In the aftermath of the murder of Meredith Kercher, Amanda Knox became the victim of a provincial, malfunctioning legal community.  In essence, Amanda was kidnapped and held against her will for four years, with no opportunity for escape.  Those who believe she is guilty of the murder blame her for the aftermath as well.  What is surprising is that some of those who believe in her innocence also unwittingly blame Amanda, in a way.

We try to answer the complex question of why Amanda was originally suspected.   Her detractors parrot the myths of the “conflicting alibis” and “multiple lies.”  Amanda’s supporters, who believe fully in her innocence, look for answers, too.  Something went haywire and attracted the Perugian police and prosecutors to Amanda.  What was it?

Many people have come to believe that Amanda’s sexual history was what first raised suspicions in the minds of the conservative, sexist, small town police of Perugia.  Since the release of Amanda’s memoir, much has been made of the sexual double standards and “slut-shaming” that were featured in the media during the murder trials.  It is true that those forces contributed significantly to Amanda’s conviction for the crime.  However, at the time Amanda was arrested, her history was essentially unknown, thus, presumably, it did not spur the suspicions against her.

Before Amanda was brutally interrogated on Day Four of the criminal investigation, zero evidence of her participation in the crime existed.  Then, after her arrest, the only evidence that existed against her was the outcome of the interrogation.  Her sexual history was not trumpeted across the tabloids until some time after she had been imprisoned.  It became a weapon in the prosecution’s case for guilt, but it was not the motivation for taking her into custody.

After the arrest, the police did provide some explanation.  One of the chief investigators said he could tell by watching Amanda that she was guilty, so no further investigation was necessary.  When we hear statements like that from modern-day police, we refuse to believe such a lack of discipline is possible.  We insist on sensible answers.  When none are forthcoming, we speculate.

It has become common on both sides of the debate to attribute the suspicion that fell on Amanda Knox to her behavior after the crime, at least in part.  Depending on the source, Amanda was either unemotional or overly emotional.   She was clever and wily, or she was too naïve.  “Naïve” is one of the most popular adjectives used to describe Amanda.  We also see authors claiming she was immature, unthinking, quirky, silly, flaky, clueless, stupid, self-absorbed, irritating, childlike, goofy, annoying, flighty, and lacking in judgment.

And those are just her supporters.

These observations are ways of trying to make sense of the arrest, but they also are subtle ways of saying that Amanda’s behavior contributed to her situation – they assume that what happened to Amanda had to have had something to do with Amanda.

Except it didn’t.

Amanda Knox was not suspected because of her involvement in the crime, nor because of her lifestyle, nor for her “inappropriate” behavior.  Amanda was suspected because some people chose to suspect her.  The reason why can be found only in their prejudices.  It will never be found by looking at Amanda.

To insist that Amanda’s behavior contributed in even the slightest way to her arrest is to blame the victim.  It implies that had she behaved differently, the outcome would have been different.  This is not something we should be willing to bet on.  Amanda’s behavior was so innocuous that there is good reason to believe the police and prosecutors would have suspected her regardless of anything she said or did.

Examining Amanda’s behavior minimizes the level of malevolence that was expressed against her.  It takes the heat off the police and prosecutors, offering them excuses they don’t deserve to enjoy.  These are people who did not do their jobs well.  They were corrupt.  They broke three laws in one night, just to keep Amanda in their clutches.

Now Amanda’s TV interviewers act as if she has something to answer for — they pride themselves on asking the “tough questions.”  Even Amanda seems to be convinced she has something to answer for.  She has not.  Everything that happened to her happened without her consent, just as it does for every victim of every assault and every betrayal.

Amanda, at age 20, was kidnapped by Perugian authorities as authentically as Michelle Knight, at age 21, was kidnapped by Cleveland resident Ariel Castro.  Who among us has the right to ask Michelle Knight why she was so naïve as to accept a ride home from a stranger?  Who will ask her why she “cooperated” with her attacker by staying at the house after being beaten in the basement?

Had Amanda Knox been less naïve, would her arrest and subsequent nightmare not have happened?  It’s possible, but why should she have been less naïve?  What American student has ever been asked to take a naïveté test before traveling to Europe?  What European student has been asked to take one to travel to the U.S.?  We expect our young people to be naïve; that’s one reason we encourage them to travel.

The problem was not that Amanda should have been less naïve; it was that Perugian law enforcement should have been more competent.

In her recent interview with Diane Sawyer, Amanda said that when she was convicted of murder at the first trial, “Everything that I thought I knew about the way justice and life worked was gone.”

In other words, Amanda’s personal reality corresponded to everything she had learned growing up in a world-class city, attending world-class schools.  Not only that, but while in Perugia, she expressed the most positive values educators ever hope to instill in their students:  concern for others, helpfulness, respect for authority.  She had no reason to expect that everything she had ever been taught would turn out to be wrong; she had every reason to believe she was working not only in the best interests of the criminal case, but also in her own best interest.

From Amanda’s well-educated point of view, she did everything by the book.  In her previous life experiences with her family and in Seattle, there was no precedent for distrusting the police, the prosecutor, the judges, her housemates, the media.  Amanda’s behavior was perfectly sane.  We should not wish she had behaved differently; we should not find fault with her; we should not feel dismay about “her part” in the debacle.  Amanda did everything right.

Now let’s turn the spotlight away from the victim and onto the aberrant behavior of the Perugian authorities.  They are the ones who have some tough questions to answer.