In 2007, a little boy named Christopher Barrios was sexually abused, tortured for days, and murdered by a mentally disabled man and that man’s father with his mother complicit. The father is on death row, and the mother is serving a 60-year sentence. She will almost certainly die in prison.
The third participant in the nightmare for young Christopher, George Edenfield, has several times been judged incompetent to stand trial and committed to a state mental hospital. With the upholding of this decision by several Georgia courts, the defense and the prosecution are in agreement with the findings and the commitment. (1)
This will not be about what happened to Christopher or the grief of his family. And even though many feel that Edenfield should have been tried and executed, or worse, this is not about him or his multi-generational dysfunctional family. One of the hallmarks of a civilized nation is persons are not put on trial who are incapable of assisting in their own defense, nor are the mentally incompetent executed. It is to our credit that America still falls in this category.
No, this is about the perceptions of the public about who commits these rare, heinous crimes. Some of these perceptions are captured in responses to news stories about this case. One such pronounces it a proven fact that one in every five people is a sociopath. Another comments that “Our system has become so bogged down with murderers, rapists, child molesters, kidnappers….” (ibid)
Almost all comments to articles about the Edenfield trials include comment after comment from parents terrified for their children, terrified at the high risk of something like this happening at the hands of some menacing, lurking stranger, some sounding consumed with panic and fear.
Though understandable, how realistic is this fear? Long-term studies at every level and an analysis of police and FBI reports show that this type of offense is the rarest of the rare. Virtually all sexual harm done to children is at the hands of those known and trusted by them, and so seldom it is almost incalculable does it reach a level of depravity and violence even close to that in this case.
Why then the perception that these cases are so prevalent? What could make someone believe that one in every five people is a sociopath and that virtually everyone who has committed any type of sexual offense is capable of actions such as these?
Dr. Karen Franklin has this to say about how public perceptions are formed and shaped: “The burgeoning infotainment industry has perfected a profit-making formula of sensationalized true-crime ‘reporting’ that plays on viewers’ emotions, whipping audiences into a frenzy of self-righteous indignation….The Internet fosters this culture of hate. Its cloak of anonymity is disinhibitory, emboldening people to spew bile with impunity.” (2) While this specific article deals with the media’s role during a murder trial, Dr. Franklin’s analysis is spot-on for any high-profile subject matter.
In other words, our rapid-fire, instantaneous supply of constant and never-ending articles, alerts, reports, video, posts, comments, blogs, tweets, bulletins, and news-flashes inundate us far beyond our ability to assimilate and make sense of what we hear and see. And the competitive nature of the sources of this stream of information drives the tendency to go more over the top than the competition with the “if it bleeds, it leads” style of reporting.
And then there is public feedback–if enough people are saying the same thing, and if they say it often enough, it takes on the semblance of truth. And when they have the ability to say what they please in the “cloak of anonymity” created by the Internet, the worst examples of hatred and bigotry will surface.
We absolutely must remember, in reflecting on these heinous situations, that they are rare and terrible and not indicative of people in general. 20% of our population are not sociopaths. The terms “predator” and “pedophile” are used with great abandon in connection with anyone who is charged with any type of sexual offense whatsoever, and neither of them is accurate in by far the greatest majority of the situations. We have a warped and inflated perception of how frequently these situations occur because, when they do occur, they are magnified in the news to such a high degree that we are all but incapable of seeing anything else.