TV portrayal of legal system dangerous

By Tibor Machen

No, this time I am only indirectly speaking about the terrible legal system that the USA is now sliding toward. Instead, it is the TV show, Law & Order, that comes up for discussion.
When the show began, there was a healthy idealism about it. The initial story lines stressed principles not only of law but of justice. Michael Moriarity’s assistant DA was motivated from conviction and the ideas and ideals that guided him were mostly truly valuable.

In time others came to the show, left it, and Sam Waterson, while very competent and often dealing with very significant issues — such as individual responsibility versus excuses for how one behaves — isn’t given as many occasions for soaring as was his predecessor on the show. Much of the show now is torturously PC.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of the program — for not always dealing with monumental themes is not something for which a TV program ought to be chided — is how the most recent addition to the characters, one who replaces Lenny, that of Dennis Ferina, has brought some really objectionable traits to the way the police are depicted.

Or, are the writers perhaps aiming to be more realistic?

Ferina’s character is given the role of bullying. A night club owner is nearly coerced into giving him help by using the threat of closing down his establishment for trivial violations of some kind of city regulations. This approach to gathering information, which really indicts the detectives for lacking the skill to proceed within the guidelines of due process, is not OK at all. It is vicious, a form of police malpractice, yet the show makes no mention of that fact, no one is called on the carpet to answer for such conduct.

By omission, then, Law & Order is now endorsing injustice, somewhat akin to how those giving lip service to law and order in the USA are often doing gross violence to justice, to individual rights.

As Thomas Aquinas said, “A man is said to be just because he respects the rights of others.” While mere authority shouldn’t count for much, Aquinas had it right, just as did the American Founders: Political and legal justice is when the people’s rights are respected as they are being protected. Which means due process.

So many people in our country and elsewhere bellyache about the bad influence of Hollywood and other producers of entertainment, mainly because of sex and violence. Well, few would point to Law & Order, the TV show, but I will. Just as it was with Miami Vice, so it is beginning to be with Law & Order. The cops can’t do anything wrong.

This is sad. I have myself been a member of the police in my life, an Air Policeman, and I find it especially annoying to have one of the most popular TV shows in the country sanction methods of dealing with the public they are supposed to serve that are obviously wrong.

I and most of my colleagues struggled hard never to step over the line, never to intimidate or threaten anyone who hasn’t been shown to be guilty of anything. It is disturbing that a popular and widely respected TV program would so betray the profession of the peace officer.

Again, let me make clear: I do not expect drama of Shakespearian caliber on a TV series. So if Law & Order isn’t any longer its original exceptional self, such is life. Writers can run out of elevating material.

But it’s another thing entirely to begin to slack off on essentials. And of police work it is most essential that due process be strictly adhered to, including how the profession is depicted when made a vehicle of entertainment. Talk about promoting perverse moral values!

Alas, it goes to show, once again, that people are often able to fail as well as succeed. However, when it is not noted clearly and explicitly that such is our lot, there is even greater danger of malfeasance. The very corruption of a profession is recklessly glorified on TV.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at: Machan@chapman.edu