I have absolutely no opinion as to the guilt or innocence of Dr. Conrad Murray, whose manslaughter trial in the death of Michael Jackson seems destined to replace the unfortunate Amanda Knox in the center ring in the media circus once Amanda's fate is known. But I have some sympathy for him. It does appear to me that there's a ritualistic aspect to the event that's worthy of note--not an exculpation of someone who may indeed be guilty of negligence or medical malpractice, but an observation about a very ancient need in social and tribal circles: when something goes wrong, someone has to take the blame--and often the punishment--as a form of communal expiation. When the rain doesn't come or the dragon roars, let's sacrifice a virgin or two. Lose a few football games? Fire the coach.
(In passing, I note my own secret, distinctly un-Buddhist satisfaction at the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and, most recently, Anwar al-Awlaki--though these have an element of justifiable, pro-active self-defense in addition to retribution. As leaders in a quasi military initiative to kill innocent people, they hardly qualify as scapegoats.)
We have an innate lust for vengeance, and are eager to assign blame anywhere other than ourselves. It seems to me indisputable that Michael Jackson bears a good part of the responsibility for his own untimely death; it was he, after all, who demanded more and more of the poisons that eventually killed him. In the face of such a determined self-destructive drive, it's possible that it became simply too hard for the doctor to save the pop star from himself. The family, however, as well as society at large, demands the satisfaction of what has come to be called "closure"--in the form of assigning blame and assuring punishment.
Suffering families do indeed deserve our compassion, but I am less than sympathetic, I must say, to those who bitterly demand retribution for the loss of a loved one; and have great admiration for those who show compassion toward those tho have victimized them. Too often, we know, those whose blood they seek in exchange for bloodshed prove to be innocent of the crime for which they have been indicted, even convicted, as in the recent case of the three young men (the West Memphis 3) imprisoned for decades in the murder of three pre-teen boys; news clips show one father angrily rejecting the incontrovertible science of exculpatory DNA evidence and continuing to insist upon their guilt, and another withdrawing the blame he earlier attributed to the men. My compassion is required for the former; my sympathy, however, goes to the latter.
The barbaric culmination of the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth impulse is the death penalty. Who takes a life must forfeit his own. This is society's ultimate way of exorcizing the evil that always lurks within its breast; or at least satisfying itself that "justice" has been done. Just last week, the state of Georgia swept aside all doubts and defied international outrage in order to administer death by lethal injection to a human being, one Troy Davis. There were those who mourned this irreversible action; and those--many more, perhaps--who gladly celebrated the demise of a man who may or may not have been guilty of the charges on which he was convicted. Around the same time, Texas Governor Perry was roundly cheered by a debate audience for his proud affirmation of his role in enforcing the death penalty in his state, and his denial of any possibility of doubt.
Scape-goating, though, is not always a matter of life and death. We are a deeply litigious
society; no matter how small the offense, we seek retribution in the courts. We shy away from examining our own share of the blame, eager to attribute it to someone other than ourselves. Our civic life has become a continuing exchange of blame and counter-blame, leaving no one ever entirely free from its contamination. We victimize others, and complain bitterly of our own victimhood. I look to our political life, so enmeshed in this fruitless exercise that we have
been reduced to seemingly terminal paralysis. Most enmeshed of all, a Gulliver pinioned to the ground by the hoard of Lilliputians who surround him with their clamor, the President. There are those on either side of the political spectrum who shower him with blame for any number of actions or inactions; I say they are themselves unwitting participants in the scapegoat game. And this particular act of human sacrifice, if thus it does turn out, will certainly not bring us any better chance of rain.