Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A tale of two cities

Drekkingarhylur - The Drowning Pit

I have been wondering a lot for the past two days, nothing earthshaking but intriguing nonetheless. What set my mind in motion are two different sets of news reports, both involving young women that seem to have broken the most important trust provided us as people – that placed on us by our fragile offspring. One of the incidents took place here in Reykjavík this week and the other over two years ago in Florida.

Two days ago a young woman, 22 years old, arrived at the emergency ward in Reykjavík bleeding and ill. The doctors examined her and found her condition a result of her giving birth. The woman denied any such event but the medical evidence was so concluding that the doctors called in the police. Some hours later a newborn infant was found in a trash can at her workplace, deceased. Apparently the baby boy was not stillborn. This woman will go to trial sometime in the near future and faces a sentence of maximum 6 years. The laws here differentiate between killing a newborn and other murders where you can get a maximum sentence of 16 years opposed to 6 for a newborn. It sounds strange yet has its reasons.

Two years ago a young woman, 22 years old, did something unclear that resulted in the demise of her little girl in Orlando. She told lies and acted immorally but nothing has been brought to light that proves beyond a doubt what really happened although it seems evident that what occurred was certainly not normal. This woman has been acquitted in court of all but lying to the police. She is said to receive a maximum 4 year prison sentence for that but would probably have been executed had the verdict regarding her daughter’s fate been different.

Two stories of women of exactly the same age, that appear to have committed similar acts, in two cities situated separated by the Atlantic Ocean. Now for the part that interested me. The media reports we see here from the Orlando investigation and trial have been very harsh and lacking in genuine empathy. True, the event that sparked them was horrific but still. The young woman at the center of it all was all but made out to be a cannibal and there was not much discussion as to whether she might be mentally insane or a psychopath. Let’s just say that discretion was not overly apparent in the whole thing and many TV stations approached the tragedy as if it were a three ring circus.

Reporting from our local tragedy has been a whole lot more subdued. The story is told differently - and it is of course different - and attempts are made to respect the suspect, despite what she appears to have done. The woman is said to be a recently arrived foreign worker (the country from which she came does not matter here) who was employed at a hotel as a cleaning woman. Bad photos of her, making her appear to be the devil’s cohort are not posted and instead explanations are sought as to why she would have done such a horrible thing. Did she not know that she could get free medical help? Or that she would receive paid maternity leave from the government? Or that her baby could have been found a good home and not have to spend a day in an institution? Probably, no she did not, on all accounts. Could she possibly not have known that she was pregnant and the shock of giving birth thrown her into a mental state where she did not know what she was doing? Who knows.

Some internet outlets have tried to stir up animosity with headlines like: “Baby died while mother was receiving medical care.” But these have been boo-ed away. The case is a tragedy and as such should not become fodder for emotional pornography for the masses. It is sad, it is horrible, but it is not a form of horror entertainment. If it has any business in the media at all it is to draw attention to what can possibly be averted in future. Which for most part is how it reads.

We have come a far way here in Iceland from the time women were executed for killing newborns. They were also executed for illegal pregnancies and whoring. The execution method was by drowning, they put the woman in a sack and threw it into a river pit aptly named Drekkingarhylur – the Drowning Pit. Most if not all of the women that killed their newborns (usually by exposure) had absolutely no way of supporting a child and would have been killed for whoring if they had let the child live – whatever sort of existence the child would have had without anyone to take care of it. Some had been raped and hardly a one had a responsible father in the picture. Not the right thing to do in any situation but again a tragedy born out of desperation. I am sure the judges and executioners of the time never gave a thought as to how they could prevent such things from happening – how they could help young women in similar situations from choosing this last resort.

I do not like executions. Justifying killing someone because they killed someone just does not cut it in my book. That is not to say that the world would not be a better place without some people. Which is why I don't argue with those who are pro-execution. I don't have a strong enough case and am a bit wobbily on the issue so I am missing the heat and enthusiasm of absolute conviction. I do however think that most criminals deserve a second chance at some point - something that is hard to provide to a dead person. This is probably a result of my Nordic upbringing - punishment in our justice system is based on exactly this, sit out your sentence, repent and try to make life better for yourself and others second time around. It does not always work out this way though.

I know perfectly well that the young mother in Orlando was not in the same situation as the young woman in Reykjavík, and in no way can her circumstances be likened to those of Icelandic women in the 15 and 1600s. But it still bothers me that worldwide news stations used her to boost ratings by channeling hate her way. Anything that nurtures hate can ever be a good thing. And are the haters pouring into single mom shelters to offer their services or running to the bank to donate money to charities for the mentally ill or for abused children?

Something tells me no one is likely to be injured in such stampedes.

Having read this through I would like to add that it may seem as if I perceive myself as morally superior to those that did not like the Orlando mother. That is not the case. I did not particularly like her myself from what I saw of the whole debacle. Neither am I critizing those who watched or followed the story - I did that too. What I dislike is that the media giants do not seem to shoulder the responsibility that comes with their immense power. If you have the opportunity to sway people's thinking or opinions, do it for a greater purpose - at least some of the time. Or at the very least steer away from making things worse in the world. And if editors or media board members can't think of a way to do it and stay out of the red then they are in the wrong line of business. A grammar book made it to the top ten list a couple of years ago (Eats, shoots and leaves) so all cannot be lost.   

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. The Casey Anthony trial was a gift from the gods for cable news. I didn't watch any of the trial but I did see many stories about Casey Anthony in the newspapers and on television.

    It has been explained by a number of legal professionals that the state did not have a good case before they went to trial. The little girl was missing for 31 days and Casey didn't report it. Did you ever loose sight of your daughter for even a few seconds before you panicked? Her baby is missing and she gets a tattoo indicating that her life is really good? Everyone convicted her for those two actions.

    I think she killed her daughter and she did so without reason. The big question that didn't get answered is why was the child's death necessary.

    This morning the judge sentenced her to a year on each of the counts of lying to the police. She will likely get out in a few months because she has been in jail for the three years leading up to the trial.

    I am opposed to capital punishment. Aside from the moral isssues, there have been people on death row for years who have been exonerated with DNA tests that are more sophisticated than were available when they were arrested. On the other hand, sometimes I think it isn't a bad idea. A couple of years ago, a woman was murdered and her daughter was left for dead. The police arrested two teenagers from the neighborhood. When asked why these two people were the victims they responded that their house was the first one they had approached that had people in it. Not for the first time, the motive was a desire to know what it felt like to take a life. I doubt rehabilitation would be effective. New Hampshire has the death penalty. I don't think there will be a huge group of people protesting the sentencing.

    I am pro-life but I can understand when a woman/girl thinks she has no alternative. It infuriates me that more than a few Republican candidates wrap themselves in the pro-life banner but have never submitted any programs in Congress that would help women support the children they keep. The United States is still a Puritan nation when it comes to anything to do with reproduction. As in Iceland, not so long ago contraception was only available to married women, probably not the demographic that needed it the most. Children conceived out of wedlock are looked upon as the product of wanton activity. Women who give birth to babies without putting a father's name on the birth certificate are thought of as morally corrupt and no one ever forgives and forgets. The pro-life mantra doesn't cover the period after the baby and mother leave the delivery room.

    Casey Anthony has not revealed the name of the Caylee's father. She doesn't fall into the category of pregnant women who have nowhere to turn for help. Her parents were likely not happy when told that Casey was pregnant; her lifestyle didn't qualify as a good maternal prospect. But they didn't throw her out of their home and they welcomed her and the baby into it.

    There is, seemingly, no reason why that baby had to die and that is what has fueled the fury.

    The cable network that did Casey Anthony around the clock is owned by Rupert Murdoch who has never seen a tragedy he can't use to make himself richer.

    EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES is a great book to have on hand when a laugh is necessary.

  2. Thank you for an interesting and nuanced post (I wonder if there is some material for a unique Sigurdardottir story here?)

    And though I am against killing babies, born as well as unborn, I do not condone cruelty to weak and disturbed mothers either!

    Dorte H.

  3. So much of what ills our (US) society is raised by this piece. Pro-Life/Pro-Choice political rhetoric without care beyond the slogans, a media driven by market share fever in search of the next O.J. Simpson phenomenon.

    But there is also something to be very proud of as an American in this story: a jury of the vilified woman's peers judged her based on the best the State of Florida and the worst the world media could muster against her, and found her not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.