I didn't have a huge investment in the fate of Amanda Knox, the 24-year-old American whose conviction for killing her roommate four years ago in Italy was overturned Monday. I was generally too put off and confused by the media circus surrounding the case to try to figure out the whole story.
Still, in the moments before the appeals decision was announced, I found myself on the edge of my seat, constantly refreshing my Internet browser until the word "acquit" flashed across the screen. Then I exhaled, a far bigger sigh of relief than I thought I had in me.
The new outcome doesn't solve the mysteries surrounding Amanda Knox. There are so many strange things about the case, from the elaborate conspiracy theories of the prosecutor (satanic orgies!) to Knox's erratic behavior, that it seems unlikely anyone will ever fit all the pieces together. But I think I have figured out why I was so relieved about the outcome of a situation I hadn't thought about much to begin with. It's because Knox embodies a certain American anxiety about venturing onto foreign soil. I was relieved for us all that she was coming home.
In other words, Knox is a poster child for staying put. She's proof that the world outside our borders is so depraved that a simple junior year abroad can lead to a 26-year prison sentence.
Parochial as that sounds, it's not far off from the sentiments directed at Knox by her fellow Americans, many of whom seemed to feel that, her guilt or innocence notwithstanding, she just shouldn't have been in Italy in the first place. "Nobody in their right mind should ever visit that backward nation" went one particularly disheartening comment on a Los Angeles Times story about the case this week.
Though "backward" probably isn't the adjective most people would apply to the country that brought us the Renaissance (not to mention Dante, Fellini and Prada), many of us, sadly, are at least a little receptive to this kind of paranoia. I know I am. I may not worry about being charged with murder in Tuscany, but I do have a long-standing, largely irrational fear of being thrown in a Third World prison or getting gravely sick or injured in some remote jungle. And considering Hollywood's interest in this genre — two words: "Midnight Express" — I suspect I'm not alone.
I also suspect these fears explain why we can be so quick to cast aspersions when our fellow Americans find themselves in tight spots overseas. In trying to assure ourselves that such a fate would never befall us, we look for ways to see them not as adventurers but as fools.
Or, worse yet, as traitors. With the American hikers jailed on espionage charges in Iran, and with the Current TV journalists who were detained in North Korea after accidentally crossing the border in 2009, the willingness of some segments of the American public to suggest that these travelers deserve their fate goes beyond fear of leaving home or even run-of-the-mill Internet meanness. It's the result of a culture so uninterested in the outside world that anyone who dares to venture into that world is regarded as odd and untrustworthy.
It's worth asking ourselves this: Did Americans find Knox suspicious because she was charged with a crime, or acted strangely according to videos, or got her reputation destroyed in the tabloids? Or did the fact that she went to Italy at all, that she was a foreign language major, that she wanted to experience life somewhere other than the United States, stack the deck against her in our minds?
Knox's situation doesn't equate with that of the hikers or the Current TV journalists. I know that Perugia is far from Tehran and Pyongyang. I also know that the prison where she was held, and allowed to study and play guitar, is anything but Third World (and while we're at it, I know that the politically correct term is "developing world"). Nonetheless, you don't have to believe in Knox's innocence to feel relieved that she's home safe. You just need to be a person who, no matter how many stamps are on your passport, is always just a teeny bit terrified of the rest of the world — in other words, an American.
Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.