Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Anything Is Excusable...If You're Really Good at Something Else

We are all familiar with the stories of professional athletes, musicians, actors, and other celebrities who get caught driving while intoxicated, or using illegal drugs, or abusing another person, but a few weeks or months later there they are, back on the stage, screen, stadium, or wherever they make a living. It is commonly believed that these people manage to get cases dropped and sentences suspended because they are famous and can afford the best lawyers. Frequently these people set up charities or fund-raisers somehow related to their offense in order to make it clear that "that isn't the real me that did that." In recent weeks, the most high-profile example of this was Michael Vick, formerly quarterback of Virginia Tech and the Atlanta Falcons, who spent the better part of two years in prison for his involvement in a dogfighting ring that abused and killed a number of dogs. Despite having served his prison time and been out of the professional game for two whole seasons, many fans of the NFL were outraged when the Philadelphia Eagles signed Vick to a new contract. Despite having done the legally mandated sentence for the crime he committed, his reputation has been forever stained, and he will always be remembered for what he did off the field as he will for his athletic prowess.

In the past couple of days, another much older crime has been back in the news. Film director Roman Polanski, famous as the director of the crime classic Chinatown and his more recent historical Holocaust drama The Pianist (for which he won a Best Director Oscar) has not set foot in the United States since 1978 because in 1977 he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl. He met her at a party, and took her to another room where he gave her champagne and Quaaludes, a depressive drug known for its capacity to cause extreme muscle relaxation. He then forced himself upon her despite her protests to go home. After being arrested and agreeing to a plea-bargain deal for the single crime of unlawful sex with a minor, he fled the country, reportedly fearing that the judge would not honor the plea bargain and would instead charge him with several crimes to incur a much stronger sentence than the few weeks that he had agreed to spend in prison.

Since that time, Polanski has lived in Europe. He is regarded as a cultural hero in France and Poland, and critics worldwide acclaim his skill as a director. His victim, now in her forties, reached a civil agreement with him for an undisclosed amount and to her credit has been willing to forgive him. But things changed when Polanski landed in Switzerland, which has a treaty with the United States for extradition of criminals. The Swiss authorities arrested Polanski and now many in France, Poland, and Hollywood are clamoring for his release. They have said the incident shows a "dark side" of American international relations. Many probably think that a crime that happened so long ago should be forgotten. No doubt many film buffs are inspired by a director whose success now comes without reliance on the traditional Hollywood system.

For those who know the story, Polanski had endured incredible hardships before his brush with the law. He is a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, and he saw family members die under the Nazi regime. Years later, his wife and unborn child were brutally slain by members of Charles Manson's "family" in the notorious "Helter Skelter" murders. I certainly am not unsympathetic to someone who has experienced such grotesque examples of what humans can do to each other. But being a victim of violence does not excuse a man for perpetrating violence on others.

He raped a little girl. He drugged her so it would be easier. He ran from what he knew were the just consequences of his actions. And he still thinks he should be allowed to keep running. What would it say about our criminal justice system if we just let him go? What kind of nation doggedly pursues those who sell drugs, engage in insider trading on the stock market, and people who steal music online, but decides that child rapists should get a pass because they're trendy and living in Europe? Our justice system recognizes that there is a place for leniency--after the perpetrator has demonstrated remorse and reformation by serving at least part of his sentence. Roman Polanski has spent 30 years refusing to face justice for what he did, and using his artistry as a filmmaker as an excuse that the normal rules don't apply to him. According to a lot of the cultural elite, that's just fine.

Maybe it's time to consider paroling Charles Manson. After all, I understand he was quite the poet.

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