Anne Applebaum has stirred angry wasps in writing “The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanski” in the Washington Post.
I am certain there are many who will harrumph that, following this arrest, justice was done at last. But Polanski is 76. To put him on trial or keep him in jail does not serve society in general or his victim in particular. Nor does it prove the doggedness and earnestness of the American legal system.
I agree with Applebaum, though some of her arguments strike me as foolish. She argues that Polanski has suffered enough, given his experience in the Holocaust and his wife’s murder by the Manson sect. I fail to see how suffering excuses causing others to suffer, but I suppose that I do not have a nuanced enough morality.
Applebaum’s critics argue that she is excusing a paedophile, that Polanski is a fugitive from the law, and that the filmmaker has lived a life of ease in chosen exile. They want justice to be done, even if it means punishing the old sodomizing Jew in his twilight years.
I certainly do not defend any of Polanksi’s actions, but I find the “justice at any length and cost” crowd rather revolting. I have always thought ill of the Israeli Nazi hunters and all the people who live for such vengeance. Ugly caricatures of endless Semitic vindictiveness come to mind, confirmed by and manifested in each extradition of an old pensioner. Give it a rest, and move on with life.
Several conservative web sites are outraged that Polanski’s Hollywood friends are supporting him. For aren’t the Left Coast radicals the very ones to whine incessantly ad nauseam about “taking back the night”? The Right smells hypocrisy.
Yet, I do not detect such hypocrisy. First, we should expect the film industry to care about one of its own, especially when it venerates him as a great artist. Following in very old ancestral footsteps, Hollywood’s legions excuse Polanski’s wrongdoing as they acknowledge his greatness. It seems to me that every community and interest group does this to some extent for their own while condemning with vitriol the lack of principle by other groups when they do the same. Consider any great man—or woman—and you usually can detect this phenomenon somewhere. No one is perfect, and partisans defend their own while enemies despise their other.
Is this morally scandalous? Perhaps, but it is ubiquitous in human affairs, and I tend to grant human unreason its hidden rationality. When we welcome a god among men in terms of his brilliance or creativity or beauty or great deeds, we calculate that we receive far more than we “pay” by tolerating his little misdeeds. I certainly would prefer the existence of a man such as Oscar Wilde to the existence of a mediocre fellow who contributes nothing to society except the favor of not becoming a bother. Such an unassuming fellow makes for a pleasant stock of low maintenance citizenry, but he does not inspire much. In addition to the requisite stability of bourgeois norm, a society needs spice—not sociopaths or vicious men, but interesting people whose imperfections we merrily accept so that we can share in their radiant splendor in other domains. Give us David, along with his sins, so that we might have a king worth obeying.
Second, the “Hollywood Left” may be fashionably feminist, but it has never been especially keen on law and order. “Take back the night” rallies rail against phantom men—the stock characters of Lifetime movies who have no story of their own. Once the Left grants such villains their own faces, then the Left sees the “human side” of crime; the Left goes to extraordinary lengths to excuse the bad actions of wicked men. Why should we expect anything else with Roman Polanski?
Third, for all of battle cries of justice, the Left does not believe in justice, and it certainly does not consider the penal system just. If anything, Leftists conceive of the penal system as a method of rehabilitation. They are not interested in punishment; they see no good in human suffering.
I suppose that my own thoughts on the thirty-two year hunt for Polanski betray a similar disinterest in the penal system as just retribution for wrongs committed, though my distaste for what Auster calls Javert justice has a different origin than that of Leftists.
Unlike the Left, I do not believe in the rehabilitation of criminals. I think that profound character defects cannot be healed by any criminal justice system. That is not to say that some criminals do not repent. Indeed, there are some wicked men who transform into good men, but such is rare and, in my opinion, rather miraculous. As a society, we cannot bank on criminals’ experiencing what the saints call “the gift of tears.” We must work with probabilities. Moreover, I do not consider it just that a society should coddle those who have wronged it. “Rehabilitation” often seems like an excuse to expend money on those who have renounced the mutual protection of men in community. We should leave repentance to the religious sphere and not count it among political policy goals.
However, I do not personally think that a criminal justice system offers much justice through punishment. I believe that I get it when God claims vengeance for himself. For how does punishment undo an evil already done? If we delight in suffering and pain, we risk perverting ourselves. We punish children to correct them—to teach them what is right and to make them better. Such is possible for grown men at some level, with minor crimes and misdemeanors, but the rehabilitation of broken souls is beyond the abilities of the state. So, what is the point of punishment?
I grant the penal system only one legitimate purpose—the protection of society. If punishment protects society from predation, then it is useful. The penal system protects society by teaching people what is acceptable behavior, wherein punishment provides a vivid instruction of the society’s values. The penal system also protects by striking fear in the hearts of potential criminals. If such men cannot be constrained by their own character, they might be held in check by fear. This is the “deterrent” factor in punishment. Lastly, the penal system protects society by removing harmful agents from society, through incarceration, exile, or death. In each of these roles, we need not concern ourselves with transforming a maimed soul or with exacting an eye for an eye. We simply utilize punishment to protect society. The criminal justice system, then, is the internal, domestic equivalent of the armed forces, which employ violence or the threat of violence to achieve a state of peace among hostile external powers.
Given these thoughts about punishment, I see no purpose in the hunt for Polanski. With the passage of time and with the circumstances of his exile, I do not see how imprisoning Polanski would serve the good of our republic. I think the same about senile “war criminals” on death’s door. If thirty years pass and Osama bin Laden still lives, uncaptured and in hiding, and if the threat of Mohammedan terrorism has long passed (obviously, this is an unrealistic hypothetical), then what would be the point of capturing him? We pursue him because he remains dangerous. Old Nazis are only dangerous in the fevered imaginations of Hollywood producers. Rabbinical Jews and “righteous gentiles” merely have bloodlust for them.
So, let Polanski live out his days in Europe. If he is to face just retribution, I doubt that it will take long. He is seventy-six years old.
Update: I continue to work with these ideas in “Polanski Reloaded” and in “Flogging a Dead Polanski.”