Too powerful an icon to be put behind bars

Saturday, 7 October 1995

For those who stand astonished at the OJ Simpson verdict, let's refresh our memories...

There was a time when giants were known to walk the earth. They went by such names as Zeus, Jupiter, Woden, King David, Lord Rama, and Lord Krishna. They personified power. They revelled in it. They dispensed justice, distributed largess, and smote mightily, left, right and centre.

These giants laid down rules by which lesser beings were expected to live. Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not cheat, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife... Not that those things were bad, but rather because those were pleasures that the giants reserved for themselves.

So Woden ordered Brunhilde to kill Siegfried though he was innocent, David coveted Bathsheba and so sent her husband, Uriah the Hittite, off into battle to meet his death. Rama slew Vaali, so Sugreeva could steal his throne and wife. Krishna asked Bheema to cheat in a duel and smash Duryodhana's testicles with a mace, because the latter could not be defeated in fair combat.

The people recognised the giants for the gods they were. They propitiated the gods and obtained favour in exchange, which enabled them to bask in reflected divinity. Or they found disfavour in the eyes of the gods and, along with their families, suffered mightily for it, "For I the lord thy god am a jealous god visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me..." (Did I mention jealousy?)

And then, some 2000 years ago, there arose a new voice, who said all men were brothers and that love would conquer all. A nice dream. I wish it upon the world myself. I even try to work towards it myself ...

But as the voice passed on - as all people tend to do - there were those that recognised the potential of having a populace that believed that blessed are the meek and that they should turn the other cheek.

They sent their armies off into the land of the infidels who used to propitiate the giants. Those that did not convert were exterminated. Those that were not exterminated were enslaved. And those enslaved could not propitiate their new masters, for they were to find no redemption in this world. Their reward would come in the afterlife, when they would be born again.

There are millions today who believe this. I hope for their sakes that they are right.

But giants continue to walk the earth. Like governments, big business, organised crime. They wield power, dispense justice, distribute largess, and smite mightily, but they do so invisibly. They are faceless.

Those they have taught us to aspire to are football heroes, TV stars, and self-sacrificing saints. These people - like Pamela Anderson, Francois Pienaar, or Mother Theresa - do not wield any power. They are symbols of attractiveness, popularity, or self-righteousness that are designed to distract most of us from lusting after the real power of the invisible giants.

But the problem with symbols is that they are not allowed to break the mould. It's inconceivable that Pamela Anderson should aspire to a Ph.D in Astrophysics, or for Francois Pienaar to become a transvestite, or for Mother Theresa to sport gold and diamonds.

So today, we have OJ Simpson, who walks the streets again, a free man.

Did he do it?

It doesn't really matter. The US system of justice requires that guilt be established beyond reasonable doubt. The defence was able to instill reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury.

But OJ is a symbol of everything that Americans are taught is good. A football hero who went on to be a TV and movie star. A respectable black man who showed that the system could be made to work.

On trial with him was the American system of justice on a charge of racism. If Simpson was convicted, Los Angeles - and indeed all of the US - faced the possibility of a black backlash that would have made the 1992 Rodney King riots look like a Sunday school picnic.

Another jury might have convicted OJ the Man, but OJ the Symbol could never be found guilty.

So the gods have favoured him, today.