“Well, I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.”
Remember that line? It’s from director Don Siegel’s brilliant, controversial 1971 thriller Dirty Harry, which starred Clint Eastwood as the eponymous San Francisco cop who’s out to prevent maniacal serial killer Scorpio from murdering city residents willy-nilly. This snide, bitterly expressed statement follows the summoning of Eastwood’s inspector Harry Callahan to the district attorney’s office—after the good detective has tortured Scorpio on a football field in an effort to reveal the whereabouts of a girl whom the villainous murderer has kidnapped and buried underground. Angry and upset that Callahan has gone beyond legal procedure to obtain this information, the DA says, “What I’m saying is that man had rights.” And to that, the inspector strikes right back:
“Well, I’m all broken up about that man’s rights.”
It’s an interesting rejoinder, and I’ve been thinking about it in light of the recent developments concerning the Israel Defense Forces soldier who killed a disarmed Palestinian assailant after the latter individual tried to attack troops in Hebron. Bear in mind that in no way do I condone this IDF soldier’s behavior; he terminated the life of a person who was obviously not a threat anymore to anyone, and in doing so, he took the law into his own hands and violated it—an action that warrants his prosecution. But I’m wondering if this brings up questions we should ask ourselves about morality and the way we should feel when presented with such situations in the media. Harry Callahan felt no pity for the man he was pursuing who tried to harm others. Should we?
There’s a difference between sympathy and human rights, and they may not always go hand in hand. A man has been killed by an IDF soldier, yet that man, before he died, attempted to attack other people with a knife. Does he deserve sympathy or just the acknowledgment that he was wronged? Are we, as observers, consumers of the media broadcasting the information surrounding this incident, required to have any compassion for the individual whose rights were violated in this case? I refuse to say he “got what he deserved,” as so many may; in my opinion, he should have been given a fair trial—that the IDF soldier dispatched him so indifferently is extremely disturbing and problematic, especially given the army’s reputation for moral and just behavior in wartime environments. Yet I have to confess that I’m wary of feeling pity for a person who before had tried to assault others. Does that make me a bad person? Should I, or anyone, for that matter, automatically express sorrow at this loss of life, even though the individual who was so unjustly terminated endeavored to violate other’s rights to exist only moments earlier?
It’s a tough question, and I hope people are asking it of themselves. The situation is not a mirror image of that showcased in Dirty Harry; the assailant who was killed by the IDF soldier did not kidnap a child, and the soldier was not trying to find information out of him in a life-or-death race to prevent a girl from suffocating. Still, there’s a lesson in morality here that we should recognize: We must remain lawful in all cases, even if there are situations where we don’t agree with or advocate those who have been wronged. Perhaps we can look for additional guidance to another fictional character, J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnificent wizard Gandalf, who says in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” We can’t afford to do that. We can feel but not act out of dislike. We must not lower ourselves to that.
I worry sometimes that behavior akin that that conducted by the IDF soldier with foment an increase in anti-Semitism—a phenomenon that Jews have had to deal with for way too many centuries. Obviously, his action is not representative of the belief systems of all members of the tribe, and it cannot be supported in any way. But I’m also concerned that too many folks may go beyond not being “all broken up about that man’s rights” … that they are putting their hatred into practice by openly advocating his conduct, rather than condemning it while remaining aware that the individual who was killed was an assailant and was not the epitome of morality. It’s perfectly healthy to believe in the latter concept; it’s not correct to believe in the former. And no matter what Harry Callahan may say, we can’t promote vigilantism. No one should go beyond his or her duties to “deal out death in judgement,” as Gandalf might say. We aren’t gods. We’re just human beings.
Of course, like other members of our species, we share the same faults, the same fears and hatreds, the same tendencies toward frustration, toward anger, toward mistrust and vindictiveness and distaste and condescension. Feeling these emotions, however, is different from acting out on them. There’s no reason why we have to be “all broken up about that man’s rights.” It’s when we make a move to dismiss those rights that we find ourselves in the realm of injustice.
Dirty Harry gave us something to think about in that vein. If more people can do so, without being scared of committing to this kind of introspection, the prospect of peace won’t be so far away.
I will proudly say I’m all in favor of that.