Celebrity Rape and Justice

October 8, 2009

We are supposedly an egalitarian society. Oh, I know, there are huge income and wealth differentials in the United States, but in terms of our standing before the law, all of us are equal - in theory.

We are also a celebrity worshiping society. Books live or die based on a nod from Oprah. The funeral rites for Michael Jackson rivaled those of kings. More people are interested in the travails of David Letterman than the travails of the hungry throughout the world.

But why am I remarking on the cult of celebrity? First, the cult of celebrity reminds us that the quasi-religious desire to connect with, and perhaps defer to, beings who seem to transcend our ordinary, humdrum lives remains with many of us, even some who consider themselves rational and secular. We may rid ourselves of gods only to replace them with Brad Pitt. Second, all too frequently the celebs are extended special privileges that mock our commitment to the equal worth and dignity of all individuals.

Which brings me to Roman Polanski. It is nothing short of staggering that over 100 signatures from the world of film have attached their well-known names to a petition protesting the recent arrest of Polanski in Switzerland. The petition calls for his "immediate release." Signatories include Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Steven Soderbergh and, perhaps not unexpectedly, Woody Allen.

Let's review the undisputed facts. In 1977, Polanski was charged with six felony counts, including rape and child molestation - the victim was 13 at the time. The prosecutor at the time already showed him extraordinary leniency by allowing him to plead guilty to one count of unlawful intercourse. However, recognizing that this would still mean some jail time, Polanski decided to flee the country, making himself a fugitive from justice. For the last thirty plus years he has traveled just about anywhere in the world except the United States and the United Kingdom, which made it clear it would honor the outstanding warrant. Self-assured and carefree, Polanski recently went to Switzerland, unaware that the Swiss government had recently changed its policy regarding the honoring of arrest requests from the United States.

There is no doubt that if some ordinary jerk were charged with raping a child, there would be little sympathy extended to this miscreant. Nor if the jerk managed to jump bail and escape overseas, would anyone claim that he had "suffered enough" through his self-imposed exile.

The sheer arrogance of the film celebrity class is breathtaking. Effectively, they are claiming Polanski should be exempt from standard legal rules because he is one of them - a famous director. How dare we prosecute someone who has won an Oscar?

I am aware, by the way, that the victim in this case has stated that she has forgiven Polanski and that she has made it clear she does not want to go through a trial. This is hardly surprising. Even after 32 years, most rape victims would not want to relive that horrible experience. In fact, some studies indicate that perhaps as many as 40% of rapes go unreported because the victim is too traumatized or embarrassed to press charges. I have a great deal of sympathy for the victim, but we have to remember that silence on the part of victims is what predators such as Polanski count on. Moreover, a crime is an action against all the people, not just the victim. That is why criminal cases are not styled as " Smith vs. Jones " but rather as " State vs. Jones ." Finally, Polanski's determined efforts to evade justice for more than three decades constitute a separate serious crime. We should not reward Polanski for thumbing his nose at the justice system.

Polanski is a great director, no doubt. Rosemary's Baby , for example, although superficially just a horror film, is an insightful study of how people will sometimes accept evil because of a personal connection to the wrongdoer. In Polanski's case, I hope this film does not turn out to be prophetic.