Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Curious Case of Roman Polanski

The Academy Award winning director/notorious lecher has been arrested in Switzerland on a warrant issued for his admitted statuatory rape of a 13 year old girl in 1977 (rather a dumb move there, Roman, to book your flight to Zurich without first checking to see if Switzerland shared France's lenient attitude toward sexual immorality or reluctance to extradite criminal suspects to the U.S.). The thing is, his victim doesn't want the case to go forward, and understandably so - it's perfectly easy to see how a high profile court case in which her name will be bandied about in the press and the details of her long-ago victimization recounted again and again will only bring additional and unnecessary pain and hardship for a woman who's long since processed the trauma she suffered and moved on with her life.

I am of two minds about this case. On the one hand, I think that Polanski is a scumbag who has for far too long escaped justice for his crime, and I'd like to see his debauched, shriveled ass spend the rest of its time on earth rotting in a dank prison cell (and perhaps being violated by a large, tattooed cellmate, just so he can know what it's like to be on the other end of that stick). On the other, I sympathize wholeheartedly with his victim's claim that carrying out justice against him will cause her further harm, and her wish that the case should therefore be dismissed. Rape is a crime that raises a very thorny question in regards to the philosophical underpinnings of our justice system. It is a crime of violence, and like all crimes of violence it does victimize society by fostering anxiety about personal safety. Furthermore, it's the sort of crime very likely to be committed repeatedly by the same offender. As such it is hard to argue that the state does not have a legitimate interest in punishing it, and doing so harshly. However, unlike assault, armed robbery, or the like, rape is a deeply personal crime as well - an assault on the victim's autonomy and volition that is likely to cause significant and lasting psychological harm extending far beyond the heightened anxiety that victims of other sorts of violent crimes might experience. Forcing a rape victim to re-live the experience undoubtedly retards the healing process, but that is precisely what our justice system requires in order to mount a successful prosecution. In order to punish an offender for harming his victim, and ensure he does not harm others, the courts must compound the harm he has done. When we consider furthermore that character assassination of the victim is an extremely popular tactic for those defending accused rapists in court, and that being a known rape victim carries a social stigma that is hard to erase, it is little wonder that many victims conclude that pressing charges is more pain and trouble than it's worth. Two imperatives of the law - punishing offenders and protecting innocent people from harm - come into conflict here, and it is not at all clear which should receive priority.

In some cases of interpersonal victimization (adultery and the like), we have decided that the rights to privacy and dignity of the individual are paramount, and consequently removed the government from the equation. In others, e.g. child abuse cases, prosecution is generally pursued even if victims are reluctant to press charges. And in still others, we leave it up to the victim to decide. In most such instances, that's not a very difficult decision for a majority of people, and even if it is - as is often the case with domestic violence - it's relatively easy to argue that by declining to press charges a victim endangers nobody but themselves. This is not so with rape, which is more similar to robbery in its randomness - if a rapist is not charged for raping victim A, there is a not-insignificant chance he will target victim B. It is therefore necessary to lock him up to protect potential victims. But how do we weigh the government's need to protect its citizens from the predations of violent criminals against the right of an individual not to have painful personal experiences laid bare against his or her will?

Our current answer to this question - to handle rape much as we do a bar brawl, and leave it up to the victim to decide - leaves me deeply unsatisfied. For me, sympathy for the wishes of a rape victim outweighs desire to see the offender suffer for the crime, but I find it unacceptable to contemplate letting people with dangerous and violent criminal proclivities go unpunished - particularly when I think about the possibility of someday having a daughter who might fall victim to one of them. I can't help but wonder if rape is one instance in which our "civilized" legal regimen really hasn't improved all that much on the model of those hunter-gatherer tribes who deal with rape in an eye-for-an-eye fashion by letting a victim's male relatives hunt down and kill or otherwise punish her rapist.

In any case, regardless of how Polanski's case plays out, I hope never to see him in the U.S. again unless it's for a court date, and I won't be shedding any tears when he finally drops dead.

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