Saturday, April 14, 2007


In honor of Ennio Morricone and his lifetime achievement Oscar, I recently watched my favorite Brian DePalma film, The Untouchables. Sharp pacing, full-bore performances by Robert DeNiro and Sean Connery, and Morricone's score carry you along, and it isn't until the movie ends that you realize it makes no sense at all.

Take the scene at the Canadian border. The Mounties are all mounted up and waiting to intercept the bootleggers, but it's Eliot Ness and his men who thunder down on them. Two Chicago cops, a federal agent and an accountant, and they ride like Jesse James. There's a little more to galloping over rough terrain than keeping one leg on each side of the horse, but it's so exhilirating, who cares? Stranger things are to come.

The climactic courtroom scene, for instance. I'm not conversant with the laws of Illinois, but I'm willing to bet that divorce cases there are not heard in federal court, and do not involve juries. And I'm absolutely certain that no judge ever swapped juries in mid-trial. Presented with evidence of jury tampering, a judge will declare a mistrial and start over. He will not accept a guilty plea from an attorney over the loud protests of the defendant. What the hell is going on here?

David Mamet is one of the smartest writers alive, and he doesn't turn in dumb scripts. He isn't interested in Al Capone, or law enforcement in the Prohibition era, or even in Chicago, really. The Untouchables is the story of Eliot Ness's transformation from by-the-book Boy Scout into the kind of man who can answer Malone's dying question ("What are you prepared to do?") with "Anything, including murder." Into Mamet's kind of man. When the deck is stacked against you, why even bother to read Hoyle, much less play by the rules? Ness in The Untouchables, the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross, the professor in Oleana, the lowlifes in American Buffalo, all very different but all victims of forces they can't control, doing what a man's gotta do. That's the Chicago way. Worse, it's the American way.

We are all victims, and proud of it. If not of racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny or some other form of discrimination, then of political correctness which keep us from expressing our hatreds freely and profitably. Even George Bush probably considers himself a victim these days, of the Democrat Party and those people in Congress who won't do what he wants. Since his power comes from Jesus, doesn't that make them Judases? Come to think of it, isn't Jesus the ultimate victim?

Don't worry, I'm not venturing into the dark forest of theology without even a trail of breadcrumbs to guide me back. I just want to know how we got to be a nation of victims for whom the rules don't apply. Is it just easier that way? Are we so sure the system hates us and can never be fixed? If you are unquestionably a victim, what is your responsibility? If, say, you managed to survive until your camp was liberated, and on that day you picked up a brick and smashed in the skull of an SS guard, no one would ever accuse you of murder. But that's what it is. Ness will never answer for murdering Frank Nitti (to get back to the movie), but it would be reassuring to think it will trouble him just a little. But this is not The Godfather, where every fresh killing leaves its mark on Michael Corleone. Asked "Where is Nitti?" Ness responds with a grim joke: "He's in the car." So he is, and Kevin Costner's lack of affect is for once completely appropriate. Is it cold in here, or is it me?


Blogger Mike Smithson said...

Are we all victims? I think we're all victims of the laws we allow enacted. Draco, an Athenian lawmaker, passed a set of laws that were particularly harsh, for instance, the death penalty for minor offenses or prison for debtors. Would it reduce crime or indebtedness? The citizens thought it was a great idea and he was applauded. But, similiar to America's Alcohol Prohibition of the 1920s, the Draco plan soon soured on the people and another statesmen, Solon, followed with more appropriate measures. To this day "draconian" lives in our language to describe cruel or severe penalties.

But we continue with this kind of law making. The Draconian kind, I mean. Since the Harrison Act was passed in 1914 making several drugs illegal to sell or possess, the US has been involved in its longest war, known as the "Drug War", though it wasn't actually given a name until Nixon uttered the words in 1971. We think we can control economics, control human behavior with these laws, but we end up with a bloated prison system and clogged court system. Kids growing up without fathers, the gigantic growth of gangs, and instead of treating the source of the problem, we pass new gun laws, more stringent possession laws, loitering laws...who's to blame?

We need to be Solons. We need to be responsible.

Consider this: end the Drug War. End Drug Prohibition like we did Alcohol Prohibition. It's not about the "goodness" or "badness" of a substance, but about responsible governing. The Drug War is the beginning point for so many, maybe ALL, social ills. Bold statement there, I know, but consider that the clearing of cases by cops is down to a national "low". Consider that drug busts reached another record last yr at more than 1.7 million. Consider that we have our law enforcement resources directed at one focus, but that one focus has resulted in no reduction in drug use.

I can't help myself on this subject--I'm a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition or "LEAP". LEAP is an organization of cops, judges, prosecutors and others in the criminal justice system who call for an end to the Drug War. This calls for a sense of responsibility, instead of a crusade-like effort that dreams of eliminating drugs fm society but in reality, has made drugs more available, more potent and cheaper than ever before.

5:56 AM  

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