Of course, some psycho-babblers have weighed in on the phenomenon of lynch mobs in a restrained and scholarly way, this article simply noting that mob “atrocities” tended to increase with the size of the mob. Which has been and is bad news in the multi-media age.
Then there is this, a summary of a study by one Brian Mullen of Syracuse University (Note the antiseptic euphemisms. Atrocity was “operationalized”, lynchers became “deindividuated”):
Atrocity was operationalized in terms of a composite index, representing the occurrence or nonoccurrence of hanging, shooting, burning, lacerating, or dismembering of the victim, as well as the duration of the lynching… It was suggested that, as the lynchers became more numerous relative to the victims, the lynchers became less self-attentive, or more deindividuated, leading to a breakdown in normal self-regulation processes, which in turn led to an increase in the transgressive behaviors represented by the composite index of atrocity.
For a more graphic treatment of the phenomenon there’s this traveling museum exhibit known as “Without Sanctuary”. You can take a look at some disturbing photos from that exhibit that speak for themselves here. Weird that some of these photos became post cards.
Now maybe it’s odd that this kind of thing – lynchings – flourished at least in a limited way in a United States that was, during the years chronicled, so overtly Christian.
Or maybe it’s not so odd, for isn’t Christianity historically grounded in the first century equivalent of a lynching?
Like so many issues that come up in psychology, it seems like this one is a different way of looking at what is, at bottom, some kind of demi-religious impulse: the ritual public sacrifice, about which there appears to be little intelligent commentary online by comparison.
In exhibiting this phenomenon, the mob always has a target who becomes in some sense the very personification of evil. Right now the target is Casey Anthony.
And it always has a high priest exhorting them to do their worst. In this instance it is Nancy Grace. Who said women can’t be priests?
It is true that we always look back and wonder how people could get so crazy and do such terrible things. But that never seems to matter the next time the mob gets ginned up over its next intended victim. We never see the larger issues when we’re in the middle of them playing out.
The religious aspect of this phenomenon needs more scholarly attention, I think. In the meantime, though, the target(s) urgently need to protect themselves until the fever has cooled.
Update: I found this, which is fairly obscure but also fairly recent and comes out of Tehran, of all places. The discussion of “religious” and “theatrical” rituals is quite insightful, I think. I particularly liked this quote at the very end:
Both religious rituals and theater rituals are an essential part of human being’s life experiences—it is a necessity for mankind’s sanity to escape now and then the reality of his existence. We are surrounded by rituals, and consciously or not, we are influenced by it in our daily lives as we participate in them.
I noted elsewhere as I recall that the Lindbergh kidnapping case captivated the nation in the early depths of the Great Depression. The parallel to the present with the Casey Anthony thing is obvious in this sense. The intensity and breadth of the public reaction is perhaps a measure of the economic difficulties so many people are feeling.
But in the larger sense big court cases can be looked at as kind of combined secular-religious and theatrical events. They may be more likely to become a fixation during economic bad times, but they are socially necessary public rituals for deeply ingrained reasons.