Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Being a Victim Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

In the maelstrom of claims and counter-claims arising out of Roman Polanski's recent arrest, a recurring theme amongst his supporters goes like this:

He was once a victim of the Holocaust. He escaped from the Krakow ghetto as a child, his father survived Mauthausen, and his mother died at Auschwitz. He lived off the kindness of strangers. He managed to get out of communist Poland. His wife, unborn child, and friends were brutally murdered by a cult, and the details were laid bare in a media circus. How many more ordeals must he endure? He's been traumatized by life, and now he has had to live in exile in Europe for 30 years. Hasn't he suffered enough? He's an old, old man! Even the victim doesn't want him to be extradited!

Even those I respect have taken his side. Jeralyn Merritt at Talk Left cites judicial misconduct as a reason for leaving him in peace, and Paul Campos reveals that people like Terry Gilliam, Jonathan Demme, and Martin Scorsese have come to his aid. The Washington Post, normally a running apologia for conservative flapdoodle, thinks the tormenting of Polanski is simply outrageous. Anne Appelbaum asks us to look into our hearts and consider: Isn't it understandable that a man whose early years were characterized by horror and the constant need to escape would run like a rabbit under circumstances he himself created by forcing anal and vaginal penetration on a crying child who repeatedly told him “no” and was already intimidated by his power and influence from the get-go?  Silly me, she forgot to mention the penetration part, and the crying. And the plying with Quaaludes and champagne, and the set-up of being dropped off by her mother and left there, alone. But I digress.

For some, like Merritt, the case turns on possible corruption issues, which call the entire original plea bargain into question. For them, it's wrong to haul Polanski back because he was legally railroaded in the first place, but they have no problem trivializing the rape he committed to strengthen the argument. For others, Polanski's body of work and life in exile as a rich and pampered infant terrible seem sufficient to grant him pardon. But underlying all their arguments is one unwavering tenet: “The poor man was a victim in the past. Let's not victimize him further.”

Look, if there was malfeasance, it seriously harms the prosecution's case, and the state needs to get its house in order. But it doesn't make Polanski a fucking angel, and painting him as a pitiful victim taints the good names of those who have made him a cause celebre. In a country where 18 year olds are jailed and labeled sexual predators for having consensual sex with their 15 year old girlfriends, Polanski's treatment by the court pales into pure coddling, so I'm not going to weep in the garden over this. But the the thing I have the most trouble with is the pass that people seem willing to give him because he was subject to early horrors, as though experiencing pain makes one incapable of giving it. And it's not just the Polanski case.

People trying to dodge responsibility for their own atrocities have learned this game all too well. Israel, for example, reliably exonerates itself whenever attacked for its occupation and theft of Palestinian land by raising the spectre of the Holocaust, a ghost that never fails to spook. Anyone who dares criticize their current inhumanity is roundly excoriated for attacking a people once so persecuted, and in case the Holocaust doesn't end it, they'll remind you that they were decimated in ancient Spain, and driven from place to place across Europe over the centuries, as if each and every one of them were there for the experience. Who stops to wonder what any of that has to do with those who are alive today and their behavior towards others? Despite the fact that they move through the world exercising unprecedented power compared to their ancestors, many continue to summon the demon of past horrors as if it were a defense for committing them. Jews who point out this contradiction are abused unmercifully as self-hating or worse; Gentiles are simply dismissed as anti-Semites and war criminals. And because Polanski is Jewish, many who support him soil themselves with these arguments to excuse behavior for which there simply is no excuse.

But there are other examples. Reginald Denny suffered a horrendous attack at the hands of brutal rioters, leaving him with brain damage and physical limitations for the rest of his life, but the defense leaned heavily on poverty and racism. Despite video footage identifying the accused as the attackers, the most severe charges were thrown out, and most went free. Suggesting that such a horror can be mitigated by a defense of racism proclaims to the skies that that victims simply cannot be victimizers, and paints millions of non-violent African-Americans who have also shared the institutional terrors of racism as just as likely to go off at any opportunistic moment. In Iraq, Shiites who suffered for generations under the boot heel of a Sunni-dominated government have, since our invasion, graphically demonstrated how well they learned the lessons of atrocity. Should anyone raise objections, there will be plenty who can justify it with history. And of course, even today we victorious American citizens deny to our First Nations the same ancient claim to land that we legitimize when it is made by Israel.

To bring us full circle back to the Polanski case, let's imagine that he had actually been a poor, unimportant, unlovely man whose background trauma was a series of childhood rapes he'd suffered at the hands of his uncle. Those who have been molested may be at risk to become molesters themselves. But when was the last time you heard that raised as a successful defense in a child rape case? Ruthless American observers scream themselves hoarse for revenge in such cases, and no amount of sad story will soften their hearts. Yet Polanski draws demands for clemency dependent in part on the terrible circumstances of his childhood and early life.

We continue to see the world through the lens of our wishfulness, instead of as it truly is. Can any of us ever expect justice under these circumstances?

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