The culture war over ‘Foxy Knoxy’

The pro-Amanda Knox campaign is far from saintly, what with its Italy-bashing and whispers about backward European men.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

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And so for Amanda Knox, or as she is otherwise known, ‘Foxy Knoxy’, the day of reckoning has arrived. Again.

Nearly two years on from Knox’s original conviction, alongside Italian student Raffaele Sollecito, for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher, she is to discover today whether her appeal against that conviction has been successful. Perhaps today, then, the fog around this unedifying murder case will finally clear.

Behind the hyped commentary and excited projection, it has certainly become difficult to see what happened in that Perugian cottage on the night of 1 November 2007. But the facts, such as they are, still tell a coherent story. Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old British exchange student, was the victim of a brutal, clumsy knife attack. Shortly afterwards, a petty criminal called Rudy Guede fled to Germany. His arrest, subsequent conviction and 30-year jail sentence (subsequently reduced to 16 years) for the killing of Kercher, at a fast-track trial in the autumn of 2008, did seem to contain the possibility of closure.

After all, Guede’s DNA was all over the crime scene. It was present on Kercher’s body and throughout her room. And his defence – that he had sex with Kercher and then went to the bathroom to listen to his iPod while someone else killed her – seemed more than a little desperate. When Guede’s guilty verdict was delivered, one might have expected that here the sad tale of a miserable killing ought to have reached its conclusion.

But it didn’t. The reason for this, as we are all too aware, is that alongside the horrible events of that November evening four years ago, another story began to develop its own momentum. This was the tale of Kercher’s flatmate, a then 20-year-old American exchange student called Amanda Knox. Within days of Kercher’s murder, Knox and her then boyfriend, 24-year-old Italian student Raffaele Sollecito, began attracting a lot of attention. Their reaction didn’t seem right, we were told. Their behaviour was suspicious. Newspaper stories, predictably fuelled by the comments and pictures the pair posted on social media, began to appear in the press about their degenerate ways, from the supposed drugs to the supposed sex. It was a near-relentless torrent of innuendo and barely concealed accusation. Such was the spell of guilt cast by this media onslaught that when the two were charged by Italian prosecutors later that autumn, it was not a surprise.

The problem was that as gruesomely compelling as stories of sex-orgies-turning-murderous might be, there was never any evidence that Knox or Sollecito had anything to do with Kercher’s murder. The evidence that was eventually found, such as DNA traces at the crime scene – hardly surprising given that Knox lived with Kercher – or the heroin-addicted eyewitness with a history of witnessing things prosecutors wanted him to see, seemed to have been desperately solicited to fit an incredible, salacious storyline.

And here we come to the nub of the matter. In the absence of real evidence, Knox’s character was put on trial. And it was into this curiously fact-free vacuum that a myriad of prejudices were sucked. It was these prejudices – against America, against women – that obscured the truth and inflamed the case against Knox, creating motives and reasons where none really existed. As Nigel Scott argues on spiked today, Knox was demonised, her character assassinated. She was a symbol of American degeneracy, a source of corruption with Sollecito, a 24-year-old virgin, cast as the all too easily corruptible accomplice. She was an Eve archetype, a beautiful young woman tempting men into evil, captured somewhat absurdly in her soccer-related soubriquet ‘Foxy Knoxy’. In fact, her looks were subjected to a forensic examination far more rigorous than that carried out at the actual crime scene.

However, while the prejudiced portrait of Knox that emerged in some quarters of the media was certainly unhelpful, creating a lurid narrative in place of the facts of the actual murder case, it also generated a no less prejudiced response from those seeking to defend Knox.

In fact, the initial persecution of Knox, no doubt served up with nasty preconceptions about women and America, generated a response that not only equals it in terms of unpleasant presumptions – about Italian men, about Italian justice – but actually outweighs it in terms of the sheer volume of verbiage expended. There have already already been 10 books largely in defence of Knox published. The titles indicate the balance of opinion: The Monster of Perugia: The Framing of Amanda Knox; Injustice in Perugia: A Book Detailing the Wrongful Conviction of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito. Elsewhere, the blurb for Nina Burleigh’s The Fatal Gift of Beauty touches upon the target of Knox’s defenders: ‘a disquieting facet of Italian culture: an obsession with female eroticism.’

If the initial focus on Knox seemed riddled with sexism, the counter-reaction simply reversed the lens. Hence the salivating prurience of those willing to try to condemn Knox now revealed less about the young American herself, her defenders argued, than it did about her accusers’ own misogyny. As one newspaper article put it earlier this year, the obsession with Knox had ‘nothing to do with the evidence and everything to do with being young, female and photogenic’. Back in April 2009, the BBC’s Newsnight programme was more explicit: ‘What does the trial of Amanda Knox tell us about modern-day misogyny in Italy?’, a journalist asked, before explaining that the trial of Amanda Knox told us a great deal about modern-day misogyny in Italy.

Italy and, by association, the supposedly musty cultural recesses of the rest of Europe have been under fire ever since. A murder case, in which a young woman lost her life and a man was found guilty three years ago, has been turned into a vicious culture war between young(-ish) America and Old Europe. As Democratic senator for Washington Maria Cantwell argued in December 2009, following the original conviction of Knox, ‘I have serious questions about the Italian justice system and whether anti-Americanism tainted this trial’. Knox might effectively have been on trial for four years now, but in America and, to a lesser extent Britain, Italy has been on trial, too.

In fact, the trial of Italy and its justice system has been something of rhetorical trope for commentators. After the original conviction, the Independent asked simply, ‘Should Italian justice be in the dock over the conviction of Amanda Knox?’. Writing in the Glasgow Herald towards the end of last year, columnist Anne Johnstone was scathing: ‘The Amanda Knox case was a gift to the tabloids: beautiful girls, spooky medieval city, Halloween, sex, drugs – the lot. But this was no cheap thriller. It was real life and Meredith Kercher was not the only victim. Now Italian justice is in the dock again.’

Reports of the trial sympathetic to Knox repeatedly draw attention to the ‘vagaries of the Italian justice system’. In a piece from June 2009 called ‘An innocent abroad’, the New York Times seemed intent on playing up the foreign weirdness of Italy’s justice system. ‘Knox’s fate’, the reporter wrote pessimistically, ‘is in the hand of six jurors, two judges among them, who meet two days a week and will soon take a long summer break before reaching a verdict in the fall’.

In a feature for Rolling Stone magazine earlier this year, the author was even more hostile to what in Italy passes for justice: ‘I experienced absurdism and despair firsthand on the morning of Saturday, 21 May, when the Knox/Sollecito appeal resumed in Perugia after a hiatus of eight weeks. It seemed the point of this court session was to determine how long a hiatus should be taken until the next court session. These long breaks have been a hallmark of the Knox/Sollecito trials. Due to Italy’s severe passion for holidays – religious holidays, vacation holidays, lunch holidays – the first trial never met more than three times a week.’ Italy’s ‘severe passion for holidays’, its weird truncated court sessions, not to mention the freedom of the press to report on a case while an investigation is ongoing – all have come to symbolise something seriously wrong with the Italian way of doing things.

But these things could be seen just as easily in a different way. Allowing public discussion of a trial while it is ongoing could be a sign of Italian society’s respect for the maturity of its citizens, their ability as jurors to make up their own minds on cases. Instead, a justice system renowned for its meticulousness has been indicted as borderline corrupt and rife with Old Europe prejudices. Italy and Europe are deemed barely capable of administering their own justice systems, so culturally backward have they become.

And so this trial of different cultures, each as caricatured as the other, meets once more in Perugian court. This tawdry, chest-puffing display has not only obscured but exploited a young woman’s death. That, sadly, is the real legacy of this whole America vs Europe farce.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics World


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