June 27, 2007

Vigilantes and Live Free or Die Hard

By: Dorian Davis

“You won’t hurt me,” says a confident Tony, a blonde, sweat-suit-clad terrorist, who is holding a Los Angeles office building hostage, as he stares down the barrel of a pistol at the beginning of the original, 1988 installment of Die Hard. “There are rules for policemen.”

“Yeah,” answers a shirtless, sweating-drenched Bruce Willis, or rather his character, police officer John McClane, as he punches him in the face. “That’s what my Captain keeps telling me.”

So begins the vigilantism of Die Hard, a movie that grossed $83 million and spawned three sequels, the latest of which, Live Free or Die Hard, opens in wide release on June 29.

But what, exactly, are conservatives supposed to make of this series? Are we supposed to appreciate a cop who plays by his own rules, unfettered by government restrictions, or lament the unchecked power of law-enforcement?

In Live Free, our renegade cop, McClane, partners up with computer hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) to stop criminal mastermind Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) from shutting down a computer network that runs the United States. The plot is so implausible that we can forgive, as we have in the past, the latitude that McLean takes with the law – commandeering an airplane, shooting missiles at an overpass, and destroying an air-bound helicopter with nothing more than a ramp and a careening car.

But what is the message of a movie in which the police who follow procedure are depicted as bumbling, incompetent fools, and the one who breaks the law, and endangers the public, and oversteps the role of a policeman, is depicted as a hero?

“Police never have the chance to behave this way in the real world,” assures Neal King, a professor at Virginia Tech, and author of Heroes in Hard Times: Cop Action Movies in the U.S.

The question is not whether the police have a chance, though. The question is whether they perceive one. The past two decades have been littered with examples of perceived threats, where none existed, in which law enforcement over-reacted often to tragic ends.

In 1992, a raid at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, resulted in a 10-day siege, in which police shot and killed Randy Weaver’s wife, son, and dog while pursuing him on a minor weapons charge, for which he was later acquitted.

In 1993, a similar episode happened in Waco, Texas, where police used tanks and a battering ram to attack a private compound, also on a minor weapons charge, resulting in the deaths of 79 people, including 21 children.

Neither situation posed a serious threat to the public, until law-enforcement became involved, but each was perceived as a national crisis, and swamped with personnel and equipment that intimidated and confused the people inside, and amplified the situation.

Now, our impulse might be to afford the police the benefit of the doubt, since most of them fall on the “conservative end of the social spectrum,” as Michael S. Cohen writes in Power and Restraint: the Moral Dimension of Police Work.

But these incidents are part of a larger pattern of SWAT team raids on innocent suspects – 144 in the past two decades, including 9 in 2006, according to a CATO Institute report by Radley Balko.

This is the fruit of the action movie in real-world police work: chaos. This is also a hint at the position we conservatives have to take on the renegade brand of law-enforcement depicted in the movies. We should take a stand for the rule of law, and for the compliance of the police with the rule of law.

For some, there is a temptation to ease the reigns on law-enforcement, and free up our friends in the police department to pursue a “criminal” with renegade tactics, especially in the War on Terrorism.

But we should advocate caution and the use of appropriate force. The most reasonable people can overreach, and make mistakes, and the police are no exception. One day, we could be on the receiving end of a botched operation, instead of watching it on TV, or, for that matter, in a Hollywood movie.

Live Free or Die Hard opens on June 29.

Dorian Davis is a writer living in Washington, DC.

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