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Lobby Crowds Display Rare Civic Vitality

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

Somewhere in my little brain attic I have tucked away a mental list of some of the historical events I would like to have witnessed. Washington crossing the Delaware, for instance, or the battle of Copenhagen. I wish I had seen President Kennedy's inaugural, or President Truman's decision to launch the Berlin airlift. Events like these interest me as a history buff.

I imagine that one of the most amazing events to have been a part of as an American, however, was the end of the Second World War. Even today, most Americans probably have a mental image of the newsreel footage showing the announcement of VJ-Day scrolling slowly across the marquee in Times Square, as tumultuous crowds celebrate in the streets below. Similar crowds gathered in public spaces across the country awaiting the news: In public squares and parks, outside the offices of major newspapers, or in Lafayette Square across from the White House.

Many stayed at home to listen to the radio, of course. But there was still a strong instinct to get out, to hear the breaking news in the company of fellow Americans. The war itself was the biggest collective effort ever undertaken by this country. We pulled together more to defeat the Axis powers than ever before or since. To have been a part of the vast outpouring of emotion in Times Square that marked the end of the war effort would put a spring in anyone's stride.

To say the reading of the Simpson verdict pales by comparison would be an understatement. Yet the reading of the verdict drew large crowds to Lobby 7 and Lobby 10; all eyes turned toward the monitor for one last O. J. moment. Although I heap contempt on those who followed coverage of the trial, there's something good about seeing crowds of diverse people united for a common purpose.

In decades past, democratic values demanded that the citizen hear and discuss the news of the day. That doesn't happen too much anymore. It's not that the average American knows less about national issues now than before. Probably the opposite. The problem is that we never discuss them. The Simpson trial, however, is on everyone's lips. I've heard people discussing it on the subway, in stores, on the streets in Cambridge, and even (to my dismay) in classes. Some of the discussion could even be productive.

First, there are the policy ideas: Some have proposed adumbrated trails - trials of a specific, short length. That might reduce expenditures on high-publicity trials like Simpson's, and give others the chance of having a trial at all. Others have proposed different methods of jury selection, or jury instruction.

Perhaps more important are the questions the trial raises about the principles of justice in America. Is the dialectical method of argumentation before juries a reliable method of determining the merits of legal cases? Perhaps there are rational, cognitive, and psychological constraints in jurors that prevent "fair" trials. Are trials before a jury of one's peers outdated in this era of technical sophistication? Perhaps the legal system needs to be more careful in how it presents "expert" testimony. Is a positive outcome in the legal system restricted to those who can afford it? For that matter, couldn't taxpayers' money be better spent than by throwing it on multi-million dollar, TV-oriented prosecutions?

Why don't we get together more often to think about tough, common questions like this? After all, Americans have plenty of common goals and purposes.

Lobby 10 was daily packed with people lined up to buy war bonds all through World War II. Only a California murder trial has the same effect today. Wouldn't it be great if more noble things could bring us together?