And when kids are indeed abused, who is doing it? Mom and Dad and Uncle Ted and Aunt May. As little as 2 percent of child abuse is committed by strangers. Again, why are we exercised over JonBenet?
The case does many things for us, of course. It makes us feel both titillated and virtuous; it makes us feel smart. Most centrally, it makes flattering distinctions between good parents (us) and bad parents (the Ramseys). Even if the Ramseys didn't kill their daughter, they exposed her to lascivious eyes in beauty contests, which is about as bad. Notice how much press is directed to abusing the Ramseys, to suggesting that (unlike us) their relationship to their child was unhealthy, vicious, exploitative. This whining at beauty contest parents generally is a favorite pastime of ours, as if such pageants were freakish, rather than a version of a central parenting activity: parading kids, sexualizing them, putting them on display.
The current film Little Miss Sunshine is a good example of how much we need to separate healthy families (ours) from diseased ones (those who sexualize kids). That film goes so far in its eagerness to pander to audiences as to imagine domestic bliss as the ability to be repulsed by and unite against sexy kids (beauty queens). Such hypocrisy plays to the uneasiness of audiences who, in real life, would find the lumpy little heroine of the film utterly disgusting, turning from her to feast their eyes on little vamps.
The Ramseys frighten us by being so much like the parents in the film—and like the audience: voyeurs gazing at their own children. Looking at kids is arguably our culture's central activity, so long as we can successfully objectify the kids, make them strangely doll-like and immune, both fetching and innocent. We want the Ramseys to be like the parents of Polly Klaas, or other tragic figures who occupy the center of such dramas. What could be more horrifying for parents than to lose a child to a stranger? Even when the child is not killed, we are fond of saying that rape is somehow "worse" than murder. Worse for whom? For the parent, of course, whose rights have been violated and whose part in this sick cultural drama has been stolen.
Several of the recent crime-news commentators, struggling to define JonBenet's charm without wading into treacherous waters, have compared her to Shirley Temple in her essential cuteness. Big mistake. Graham Greene decades ago was chased out of England for daring to analyze the ingredients of that Shirley Temple "cute" appeal. Greene said she was able to elicit excited "gasps" from "her antique audience" by twitching her "well-developed little rump" and generally exercising a "sidelong searching coquetry" "with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich."
Greene specified the lingering fantasy that JonBenet also plays out, one deep and dangerous in our cultural subconscious. We need to face down that fantasy and not pretend we can exorcise it on the likes of John Mark Karr or the supposed ills of American journalism. The fault lies not in such things but in us. JonBenet will not rest until our need for her finds an outlet less necrophilic.