“Popular culture notwithstanding, there is a difference between right and wrong.” — Jessica Fletcher, main character in series Murder She Wrote
We were watching Murder She Wrote tonight. The main character uttered the line above when she was asked why she did not let a friend get away with murder. The case that was set up was the type of scenario that ethicists love to work with in an ethics class. The murderer’s son had been a correspondent in a war-torn country that was obviously meant to be Afghanistan back during the Russian occupation. The son and another correspondent were arrested/captured by Russian troops. An evil Russian officer murdered both correspondents. Later that officer ended up in the USA and wrote a fictional book that was really a thinly veiled retelling of the story. The father read the story, recognized the details prior to his son’s capture, and realized that this man was the killer. So, he murdered the killer, and Jessica Fletcher figured it out, only to realize that it was her friend. She talks him into turning himself in. In the news conference following the confession, one of the reporters asks her why she turned her friend in. The answer is in the quote above.
This old show brought up an important truth at a time when modern TV shows are continually teaching us a different set of ethics. One of my favorite series is NCIS, in its various incarnations. However, in watching NCIS, NCIS Los Angeles, and NCIS New Orléans last season, I began to be troubled. In all three series there were episodes toward the end in which the law was clearly and openly violated by agents of the NCIS. In every case, the decision to violate the law was justified by exigent circumstances, according to the agents. In no instance were the agents in any danger of being turned in by their fellow agents afterward or disciplined by their superiors. It started becoming obvious that there was one right and wrong standard for the common citizen, and one right and wrong standard for law enforcement. Now, when I talk about violating the law, I mean things like kidnapping the mayor of the city and handcuffing him to a place that he was about to have blown up by a hired thug. Or, how about shooting someone through the leg and giving him the choice of bleeding out or telling the truth?
There is a doctrine of exigent circumstances in law. It generally is used when a law enforcement officer is in hot pursuit or when there is insufficient time to get a warrant. For instance, when chasing a suspect, who enters a house, you can follow him into the house without a warrant. You may perform a sufficient search to ensure your personal safety, which means you can search the suspect for weapons and a reasonable area around the suspect. It could also apply if you are awaiting a search warrant and you see the suspect through the window about to burn the evidence. I could give various examples, but you get the idea. What is not an exigent circumstance is the torture of a person, or the hiding of what actually happened from the appropriate superior officers. But, it makes a great ethics case for a class. What if you could prevent a murder by shooting someone in the leg? What if you could get a wicked mayor and stop a bombing by kidnapping him and handcuffing him to the target?
There are, of course, several problems with that approach. It is why pre-Bush, it was argued that torture should not be used. If the torture is hard enough, eventually you can get the vast majority of people to confess to almost anything. But, of course, those are not the only law violations shown on those shows this past season. Also shown, breaking and entering into a domicile, searching it, finding that there was indeed evidence, then backing out, getting a warrant from a judge, and re-entering to (surprise!) find the evidence that they needed. Meantime, they had already begun to act on the evidence. And, the problem behind all these actions is that the law enforcement officer is already convinced, and just knows, that the person is guilty. Worse, they know they could prove it, if only they did not have to abide by those stupid laws that so inhibit the police.
But, there is a serious cognitive dissonance involved. Those shows also demonstrate how often law enforcement starts out on one trail only to find that the person it points to is not the real criminal. Some shows even delight in turning you in so many directions that by the end you are completely surprised as to who turns out to be the guilty person. Now, because of the type of shows these are, the heroes tend to get their criminal almost all the time. But, the reality is quite different. Every police department can tell you of extensive cold case files that they have, of crimes that have never been solved, including many murders. And, the Innocence Project has developed an enviable record for proving beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt that innocent people have been convicted of heinous crimes. What is even worse, many of the innocent people wrongly convicted were convicted precisely because law enforcement officers and prosecutors “knew” they had the correct criminal and doctored and/or withheld any evidence to the contrary. There are also various cases in which a confession turned out to be a forced confession.
This is why the episode in which Jessica Fletcher turned in one of her friends is so important. There is an important principle spoken. There is a difference between right and wrong. Once you forget that and begin to justify the deviations, or once you have one truth for one set of people and another truth for your group, then truth itself is lost. Today, we saw where one set of truths conflicted with another set of truths. Three people ended up dead and thirty-some wounded. Two sets of truth were clashing. Unfortunately, my impression is that neither side had the truth. It must be said that one side was worse than the other. Open racism, open talk of a more ethnically pure country, open talk of the need for a new Constitution that is more restrictive, is simply and openly wrong in a most horrible way. But, the other side had no problem with the idea that they could deny peaceful freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Let’s not forget that the other side also came with helmets and sticks, ready to rumble. They had every intention of not simply preventing speech, but of openly and violently disrupting an assembly that had gone through the appropriate legal procedures to get a license to assemble. The other side has already had good success convincing university/college campuses to restrict speech of which they do not approve. They forgot that KKK, alt-right, etc., groups have no problem with a violent approach, and they paid a price for forgetting that.
There were few innocents today. Sadly, truth got thrown under the bus, and civility never made its presence known. A pox on the far-right and the far-left. “Popular culture notwithstanding, there is a difference between right and wrong.” Today, we saw only wrong with no right.