... And the Smith Story

AS in the O.J. Simpson case, almost the entire nation is at least partly conversant with the story from Union, S.C., the past five days, where a mother has confessed to lying on TV to cover up her murder of her two children. Everyone has a view.

Certainly this is a crime and a story with tabloid ``shock value.'' As with the famous Charles Stuart case here in Boston three years ago, it seemed to many of Susan Smith's friends and to townspeople that she had been a tragic victim. Both Mr. Stuart, who killed his pregnant wife, and Ms. Smith schemed to blame the murder of family on a black man. In both cases, the perpetrators of the crime banked on their own professed love for their family members to hide the crime. In both cases, the public lurched from heartfelt sympathy to bewildered disgust, if not worse. As one of Smith's South Carolina neighbors put it, ``I believed her, right up to the end.''

Moreover, in both cases, there was a relationship on the side - an obsessive desire to be in a different life.

Yet despite the aberrence of such a crime, and the shock involved, perhaps this crime at this period is sadly not so surprising. The Smith case may have been beyond words to describe - the killing of the innocent by the one person who should be least capable of this. And surely there is no way a mother can perform such an act without turning her children into dehumanized objects.

But in a sense, that is the point. This period sadly tolerates a quality of detachment from previous standards. Family structures and affections are under attack and in a confused state; Smith's crime is grotesque, but how many other children out there are now neglected, seen as inconvenient?

Not being surprised does not mean accepting such behavior as a new norm, however. This is the danger in unthinking participation in such a media drama. It brings everyone down. Taboo crimes, tabloid TV, and the kind of brutality seen in contemporary films such as ``Natural Born Killers'' only tell part of the story. The crime and the manipulation seen in South Carolina should serve as a lesson. There is a great and needful cry today for family values and for proper care of children. Yet how shallow this cry is if it is only mouthed as political rhetoric.

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