Once upon a time — 1977, to be exact — a flamboyant Miami attorney named Ellis Rubin came up with a novel defense for a 15-year-old client accused of murdering his 83-year-old neighbor in Miami Beach. The boy, Mr. Rubin claimed, was obsessed with violent TV dramas and could not tell the difference between real life and fantasy.
The “TV intoxication” defense garnered instant headlines everywhere, as Mr. Rubin undoubtedly expected. The trial of Ronny Zamora became one of the first to be televised nationally. Predictably, Mr. Rubin’s fanciful theory was practically laughed out of court, of course. The judge did not allow it, and Zamora was duly convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He was released in 2004 after serving 27 years behind bars.
Over time, the TV-intoxication idea never gained much traction as a justification or explanation for homicide, for obvious reasons. Common sense, for example.
Until this week.
President Nicolás Maduro says television shows are to blame for Venezuela’s terrifying homicide rate. The entire country, he says, is under their evil spell. Clearly, Mr. Maduro is grasping at straws because he’s been under pressure to do something about the wave of violence ever since a former Miss Venezuela, Mónica Spear, a soap-opera star, and her ex-husband were shot to death by robbers this month.
Ironically, he blames soap operas, in particular, for provoking the homicidal wave — “ telenovela intoxication,” in other words. He accuses them of spreading “anti-values” to young people by glamorizing violence, guns and drugs.
This is nothing new for Mr. Maduro, who seems to have his own problems distinguishing between real life and fantasy. Last year, he attacked violent video games and the movie Spider-Man for provoking anti-social behavior and violence. And, of course, he blames the news media for being part of some nefarious conspiracy to topple his government and destroy the economy and the plunging value of the currency.
It sounds like a bad joke, but there is nothing funny about it. Mr. Maduro’s wild accusations are a smoke screen to hide his government’s appalling incompetence, as well as a pretext to tighten the government’s grip on the media.
Venezuela has the fifth-highest homicide rate in the world, according to U.N. figures, and Mr. Maduro seems powerless to stop to it. The government doesn’t publish its own figures (no surprise there), but some critics say the murder rate has quadrupled under 15 years of socialist rule by Mr. Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez. In Caracas, the murder rate of 99 per 100,000 residents in 2011 is about 25 times higher than New York City’s.
Does anyone truly believe telenovelas are provoking violent crimes, or does their increase just reflect the disrespect for civilian authority and democratic institutions fostered by Mr. Maduro and Mr. Chávez?
If Mr. Maduro could stop being ridiculous for one moment and instead get serious about crime, he would crack down by seizing the millions of illegal weapons in the country, cleaning up the corrupt police forces and joining the opposition in a campaign to restore democracy to Venezuela.
That, of course, is asking too much of a government committed to a leftward course and a downward spiral in the quality of life. The late Ellis Rubin might be proud to see someone validate “TV intoxication” as a working theory, but it still rates as a losing defense for homicide.