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How do we learn concepts of right and wrong? How are notions of law and order inculcated in the young? If we are lucky we have parents or grandparents or caregivers with a sufficient moral compass to pass on the basics. Maybe schools play a part as well. Religious and cultural organisations do their best, preaching homilies and the preparedness of Baden-Powell. Children also pick up a lot from what they read. In my day the collected works of Enid Blyton taught me that gypsies and golliwogs weren't to be trusted. Those of a later generation perhaps wish they had scars on their foreheads that would start glowing whenever the evil one is about.
While I'm positive that Mum and Dad laid the groundwork for what passes for my personal morality, a lot of its fine-tuning took place before the television screen. Old movies never failed to have a message – sometimes subtle, sometimes not. The Hollywood Production Code, which governed the dos and don'ts of America cinema from around 1934 until the late 1950s, forbade endings in which good failed to triumph. The bad guys could never get away with it. Even those characters who reformed and saw the light usually had to die to make up for earlier transgressions.
One film that made a significant impression on me as an evolving adolescent wasn't from the studio era. By the time Dirty Harry was released in 1971, the old screen morality had completely broken down, the black-and-white certainties replaced by murky shades of grey. Still, despite infamously being labelled "fascist" by smarty pants critic Pauline Kael, Dirty Harry had at least one moment where the vigilante tendencies of its eponymous anti-hero were rendered problematic.
In the scene in question, Harry Callahan is being taken to task for his questionable search techniques by his immediate superior and a consulting judge. Despite taking a transparently guilty man into custody and gathering damning evidence in the process, Callahan has neglected a few legal niceties. Because he did not follow correct procedure and obtain a binding warrant, the policeman violated the suspect's civil rights. The arrest and the evidence are therefore deemed to be unconstitutional. Harry's furious response to this news ranks as one of the high points of Clint Eastwood's career. He snarlingly states: "Well, I'm all broken up about that man's rights ... And Ann Mary Deacon, what about her rights? I mean, she's raped and left in a hole to die. Who speaks for her?" To this challenge his boss has a succinct response: "The District Attorney's office, if you'll let us."
I wonder if the New Zealand police force has seen the movie. The gung-ho raids that terrified innocent women and children in Ruatoki and elsewhere during their terrorist fishing expedition, and the ridiculously over-the-top commando style nonsense that took place at the rented mansion of Kim Dotcom, certainly suggest that the constabulary's fantasy life is fed by low-brow Hollywood action films. Recent developments in the Dotcom case, when taken with earlier court rulings that declared surveillance activities in Urewera were without a legal basis, also point to a Dirty Harry type of attitude in our police force. Those who are meant to be enforcing our laws lack a basic respect for it.
Justice Helen Winkelmann's initial concerns that police overreached their authority when seizing anything they liked in Dotcom's household has been reinforced by a subsequent ruling that has deemed their search warrants invalid. The allegations against the hefty Teuton were inadequately described and gave police far too sweeping powers of confiscation. One might speculate that these allegations were sketchy because they are groundless, much as they turned out to be for most of the so-called terrorist suspects.
When we consider that Dotcom still has charges to answer, despite the questionable nature of police actions, the Dirty Harry analogy breaks down. The same Supreme Court judgment that allowed evidence gathered improperly or even illegally as admissible in the Urewera case is deemed to apply. Apparently, the police don't have to abide by the law like the rest of us. This is the fascism Kael was talking about.
I suppose it was naive of me to take moral lessons from an old movie. The Dotcom case is a dismaying one when you are a film buff, but it should also disappoint us all as citizens. Some of those civil rights enjoyed by Harry's victims sounded appealing.
A written constitution guaranteeing them wouldn't go amiss.
- © Fairfax NZ News