The Troubling Case of Roman Polanski
I was puzzled yesterday when I saw syndicated columnist George F. Will chortle on television about national sovereignty. He thinks that's what the people want. They want their government to feel secure in its power. Call Will a crypto-royalist.
Will was talking about Arizona's new immigration law, of which I will say more in another essay. For now, I'd like to test the Will thesis: Do we the people really give a hoot about sovereignty? The answer is, of course, yes, but we fear it when it is directed at us; we love it when it is directed at what we fear. Hence, leave my loved ones alone, but keep me free from meddling darkies sneaking across the border. Will, of course, is a churlish white guy; he has difficulty fathoming a world of lovable Mexicans.
This schizophrenic attitude is on display in the Roman Polanksi case.
Polanksi, you will recall, was convicted of raping a 13-year-old after liquoring her up. The party took place at Jack Nicholson's house. He pleaded guilty, and then fled the country before sentencing in 1978. He's not been back in the United States, so far as we know, since. We fear child rapists.
The film director has not been living in hiding these past thirty years. But California prosecutors only recently decided they needed to do something about Polanski's flight from justice. They seek extradition of Polanski to the United States.
But a funny thing happened along this twisting and turning road. The victim in this case, Sandi Gibbons, lost interest. Oh, it helps that she was paid a handsome settlement of her civil suit. The sum, though not confirmed as actually paid, is rumored to be $500,000. But more fundamentally, Ms. Gibbons just wants the whole sorry saga to be ended.
So Ms. Gibbons did what a crime victim has a right to do. She filed a petition in court. She told the California appeals court she wants the case against Polanski dismissed. She is the victim after all, right? And victims have a right to be heard, right? Don't we fear governments that forget the very people they serve?
But here is how it really works in most courtrooms in the United States: victims have a right to be heard, but the government has the right to decide. The admixture is a perverse abdication of responsibility by prosecutors.
I saw it first-hand again the other day. The prosecutor in a case I am handing was "open to the possibility of a walk" for my client. In other words, if the man entered a guilty plea, the state would consider no prison time. But first, the victim had to be consulted. When the victim wanted jail time, the state said it's hands were tied? Prison was now a requirement. Who is calling the shots in this case?
A prosecution pits the state against an individual accused of breaking the law. In most crimes, there is a victim. The victim, we say, has a right to be heard on the disposition of any case. But being heard is not the same as dictating terms. Many prosecutors simply do a victim's bidding. It is easier that way. There are fewer angry phone calls and meetings; less fuss come time for the annual review of a prosecutor's performance. Many, if not most, prosecutors play pimp to a victim's rage.
Doesn't the Polanski case disprove this rule? After all, the victim has been heard. Her plea has been considered. But the state is still acting. It's sovereignty has been injured. It needs its pound of flesh from a 76-year-old man.
This is where George Will's remark comes into focus. The state cares about sovereignty, it's power to act within the sphere of its influence. Attacking the state's sovereignty is like, well, taking a child's virginity. It is an insult not easily forgiven. The state must prove that its orders cannot be ignored. Polanski must be crushed.
But where Will is wrong is that the people aren't jealous to guard the sovereignty of the state. That jealousy belongs to the government. It will use anything to protect its power. The state will even turn on the people it serves.
Hence the paradox of the Polanski case. It pursued Polanski initially because of the harm it did to the victim. Presumably she and her family had input into the prosecution. The state then stood behind the angry family and told us all it was acting on their behalf. But when the victim lost interest, the state did not. Now the state stands alone telling the victim it know best. The state must act to vindicate its sovereignty.
I enjoy Polanski's films, but deplore his conduct with Gibbons. In a prudish way, I think less of Jack Nicholson, an actor an admire, merely because the rape took place in Nicholson's home. The ease with which I assign guilt by association startles me. But troubling as I find Polanski's behavior to be that conduct palls in comparison to the acts of the state of California, who use the victim just as much as did Polanski. He raped a girl in a private act of lust; California rapes her anew in a symbolic display of power.
Only fools, and George Will, love the state's desire to assert its sovereignty. The state is a fiction that can easily become all too real a menace when it forgets its function. Who is sovereign? We the people. We have constitutions to keep the state from getting to big for its britches and our comfort.