Picture this: I have draped a towel over my 9-month-old baby's head and am holding him by one arm over the railing of a fourth-floor hotel balcony.
You (a) gasp loudly; (b) shrug and say, well, that's Kathleen, always a little strange; (c) dial 911 and report an incident of child endangerment.
Excellent. You picked (c), I just know it. Congratulations. Your instincts are intact. A mad woman who would dangle a baby kicking and likely terrified above a 60- to 70-foot drop is clearly a danger to the child. We're all geniuses here.
Yet when the perennially weird Michael Jackson does just that - dangles a 9-month-old baby, said to be his, from a fourth-floor hotel balcony in Berlin, where he was to collect an award - people gaze in horror and select (b). That Michael, always a little strange.
German authorities say they won't press charges without a complaint, which no one has filed. Pundits and experts scramble to opine but (ital.) not (end ital.) pass judgment.
A headline in Thursday's USA Today went like this: "Don't judge Jackson, say child experts." Celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who once represented Jackson, described the incident on CNN's "TalkBack Live" as a "lapse of judgment."
"I don't think he meant anything by it," said Cochran. "He loves these kids, clearly. I would like to see it end there." Of course, Susan Smith and Andrea Yates loved their children, too.
"TalkBack" contributor and TNT talk-show host Charles Barkley agreed with Cochran. "First of all, Michael Jackson, I'm biased," said Barkley. "He's my favorite entertainer ever. . He made a mistake, he apologized, let's get on something serious."
Indeed, Jackson did apologize. "I made a terrible mistake," he said, explaining that he was swept up in the moment, just showing off like any other dad. Or like a kid with a favorite teddy bear?
The next day, in an apparent effort to demonstrate his just-a-dad parenting skills, Jackson took his two other children - Prince Michael I, age 5 (the baby is Prince Michael II), and Paris Michael (a 4-year-old girl), both whimsically draped in veils - to the zoo.
Captive zoo animals reportedly were riveted by the humanoid sighting.
Perhaps they had heard about Jackson's prior relationship with Bubbles, his beloved pet chimp. Or the tea party he threw for Elizabeth Taylor and six orangutans in Singapore.
Back on Earth, real parents are still wondering why no one arrests this "man," who though a hugely talented musician and performer, is otherwise a few slices short of a full loaf. At the very least, as one fan put it, "he apparently has some issues." See? Geniuses.
But we're not judgmental. Who's to say, after all, that the baby was harmed? Or that Jackson's children suffer from being forced to wear veils in public? Perhaps the answer can be found in another question: When was the last time you held your wriggling baby over a ledge? How often do your children wear veils in public?
Even alleged parenting "experts" have withheld judging what is obvious: "Michael Jackson obviously made a colossal error in judgment," said Sally Lee, editor of Parents magazine. No parent, she added, is perfect.
True. But here's something else that's true. If anyone other than an extraordinarily wealthy, eccentric superstar celebrity had done what Jackson did, child-protection workers would have taken his children and begun an investigation faster than you can say "thrillah."
In the presence of celebrity, we rationalize the irrational. We justify the unjustifiable. We watch this bizarre, altered creature, entranced by the power of his immense talent, as we would witness a wreck. It's horrifying to watch, especially knowing the damage that is inevitable, yet we stand by powerless to do anything.
That Michael Jackson has become increasingly paranoid and out of touch with reality is not news. Besides, his strangeness is so familiar we hardly notice. The gloved one has been wearing surgical masks for years. He's changed his face so often we don't remember what he really looks like.
Meanwhile, we've elevated the notion of not judging others to the level of sacrament. We ignore what we know instinctively - mentally unstable father endangers children - to embrace a culturally acceptable message of irrational tolerance.
The sanest assessment to emerge from the baby-dangling episode has come, alas, from the German Child Protection Association in a scary message of bureaucratic understatement: "We would advise anyone not to put babies or children at potential risk by dangling them over a balcony."