Recently, the worlds of auteur cinema and Franco-American relations have been rocked by the arrest of famous 76-year-old film director Roman Polanski in Switzerland. Polanski faces extradition to the United States for having sexual intercourse with a then-13-year-old girl in 1977; one may read an Associated Press (AP) story, one of the many media accounts of this incident, here. (Polanski pled guilty to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, but fled the U.S. in 1978 before being formally sentenced.)
In France, where Polanski is a citizen, various government officials are up in arms about Polanski's arrest. The AP story quotes the French Foreign Minister (the equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of State) as saying, "A man of such talent, recognized in the entire world ... all this just isn't nice." The French Culture Minister, Frederic Mitterand, is quoted as saying, "To see him like that, thrown to the lions because of ancient history, really doesn't make sense." Polanski's victim, Ms. Samantha Geimer, identified herself years ago; having reached a settlement with Polanski in years past, Ms. Geimer joins the call for a dismissal of charges against Polanski, saying she wants the case to be over.
Are these people simply insane?
Consider this my memo to the French national cabinet and Ms. Geimer: You are so wrong in so many ways, it will be difficult to respond to you within the bounds of even my epically long posts. Yet, logic, reason, and justice all demand that I try.
Let us keep one fact in mind that is disputed by no one: Roman Polanski had sex with a 13-year-old child--a minor who was in eighth or ninth grade--when he was 44 years old. With this fact firmly in mind, let us consider several arguments that have been advanced as to why Polanski should not be extradited to the United States to pay for this crime:
"All this happened a long time ago."
What possible relevance could this have? Certainly the matter of a statute of limitations does not enter into the discussion. The crime was prosecuted within a year of its occurrence; the only reason a long time has passed is because Polanski ran away, a fugitive from justice. Do we reward runaways from justice by dismissing their convictions, after a certain period has passed? That is exactly what we would be doing by dismissing Polanski's case on this basis.
Beyond that, what does it matter how much time has passed? The man had sex with a child when he was in his forties, for heaven's sake. The fact that it happened a long time ago is completely irrelevant from a moral point of view.
One is reminded in this respect of a terrible incident in which Mr. Polanski's own wife was the victim. In 1969, Mr. Polanski's second wife, the actress Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant, was brutally murdered by the followers of Charles Manson. (The person specifically responsible for murdering Ms. Tate was released from prison a little while ago with inoperable brain cancer, and died last week.) All of that was a good eight years farther in the past than Mr. Polanski's sexual episode with the child; do the French ministers want to make the case that Charlie Manson should be let out of prison? After all, the Sharon Tate murder is even more 'ancient' an incident, don't you think?
I mean no disrespect to the deceased Ms. Tate or her memory by making this grotesque comparison. However, I felt it necessary to mention the heinous crime of her murder to expose the wild logic of the argument that the passage of time somehow makes a difference here.
"The man is an internationally famous, highly talented artist."
The lack of logic here is astonishing, as well. Intellect and talent do not entitle one to a "Get Out of Jail Free" card in the Monopoly game of life. It would not matter if Polanski had the intellect of Einstein, the artistic sensibility of Da Vinci, the fame of Julius Caesar, and the humanitarian record of Albert Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa combined. There is only one standard of justice in an equitable society: You do the crime, you do the time--regardless of your status in society. In large part, this is what the rule of law is about.
Any standard other than this leads to social madness. The intelligentsia of society, the talented elite, must not be given moral freedoms beyond what ordinary people have; this would establish a two-tiered system of morality that is morally intolerable. We have enough problems with inequity in society on the basis of income, gender, social status, race and ethnicity, religion, and so forth; we should be eliminating such inequity, not encouraging it.
I have a right to talk about the rights of the intelligentsia. I'm one of them.
Folks, I'll tell you something that I wouldn't ordinarily reveal. I have a measured IQ in excess of 150; yes, by some measures, I am a certified genius. I am an elected Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and have received awards from three Divisions of that august learned society. Despite these distinctions, despite the certified strength of my intellect, I consider myself to be under the same legal and moral strictures as anyone else.
It must be that way, for a just and equitable society to survive. Indeed, it can and should be argued that I--and Mr. Polanski--have a responsibility to work harder than others for the advancement of a moral and just society, that we have a responsibility to provide a better example of moral behavior. Where much is given, much is expected. (I have made this argument elsewhere, and doubtless shall again.)
Yes, of course, there are different versions of morality in different cultures. However, no reputable form of morality allows a man in his forties to have sex with a child.
If we followed the logic of the French ministers, then we would have to allow someone more brilliant or talented than Mr. Polanski the right to cause him harm. Let's have the brilliant physicist, Stephen Hawking, maim Mr. Polanski--oh, can't do anything about that; Mr. Hawking is just so very brilliant, you see. (Of course, I strongly suspect that Stephen Hawking would be the very first to deny that he has any special rights because of his stupendous intellect, astonishing as it is.)
"This man has already suffered so much in his life."
No one disputes that Roman Polanski has suffered a good deal. His mother died at the Auschitz concentration camp during the Holocaust. His second wife was murdered along with their unborn child, as I mentioned above. This is terrible; this is more than one would wish on one's worst enemy; I deeply sympathize with Mr. Polanski for his unbearable losses.
And none of that means a thing.
One does not earn 'suffering points' that allow one to commit crimes. In that direction, too, madness lies in wait.
Shall we establish a hierarchy of suffering, then? Perhaps someone who was tortured or maimed in some incident of ethnic cleansing, someone who lost their entire family, should be permitted to run roughshod over Mr. Polanski. Wouldn't that make sense, by the pretzel logic used by the French cabinet ministers?
"The victim herself calls for Polanski to be released."
Here I must tread delicately. Mr. Polanski's victim, Ms. Samantha Geimer, has suffered a great deal, no doubt, because of this case and its publicity.
All that being said, I must point out that Ms. Geimer's opinion on this issue means nothing at all.
Mr. Polaski's crime was not just a crime against Ms. Geimer. It was a crime against society, which is why it was prosecuted as a criminal matter, not a civil one.
Let me put it this way. There will always be 13-year-old girls, and there will always be 40-something-year-old Hollywood stars of one sort or another. What kind of message are we sending out if we just let Roman Polanski walk? What kind of behavior are we rewarding?
On the other hand, if we do not let Roman Polanski walk, perhaps it will give some Hollywood stars some pause before they sexually exploit some minor, in the future.
When it comes to forming society, it's largely about what you reward. My suggestion is that we do not reward either sexual exploitation of minors, or skipping out on the United States justice system.
I am sorry that Ms. Geimer will be discomfitted by the publicity involved in this case. On the other hand, Ms. Geimer is in her forties. There are minor children to be protected here, and their concerns take priority.
None of the grounds advanced in favor of dropping Roman Polanski's extradition have any logical or moral bearing on the matter. To the contrary, extraditing him is a statement in favor of an equitable society, the rule of law, and the safety of sexually exploitable minor children. I appeal to the Swiss authorities to hasten his extradition. And I appeal to the French governmental ministers, and Ms. Geimer, to rethink their position, for the good of society and the safety of children.
Roman Polanski, and his supporters in the French government, are most definitely not On the Mark.
[The image of Roman Polanski at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival is from a photo by Rita Molnar. Obtained through Wikimedia Commons, the image appears here under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license.]