A while ago I was watching a “thriller” on TV. The name of the film isn't important. The subject was the host of a crime show, a bit like the popular BBC Crimewatch programme. Every week the show would re-enact crimes in the hope of bringing the perpetrators to justice. During this particular season there was a serial killer on the loose. We saw in the film his handiwork. He picked up a woman, who was not a prostitute but what might be described as a good time girl, and the two of them walked down a dark alleyway where she would quite likely have had sex with him willingly. He though had other ideas; he stabbed her in the stomach, and cut her eye out as a ”trophy”.
It was the task of the crime show host to re-enact such crimes, and the serial killer made him a big star. Then the killings stopped, and his fame began to evaporate, so in order to boost his show's ratings, he took up where the anonymous killer had left off, and started killing innocent women at random.
I don't know how the film ended, because at this point I switched off. It had taken me this long to realise that this was not my idea of entertainment. Who in his right mind would want to watch a film about a psychopath who lures totally innocent women down dark alleyways, murders them, then mutilates them in such an horrific fashion? If I hadn't been hardened by watching such “thrillers” from my teens I would surely have switched off sooner, but it is frightening how quickly we all of us become hardened to this sort of senseless brutality, sadism and inhumanity.
It is frightening too that a large percentage of the population of the Western world considers this sort of garbage to be entertainment. It is even more frightening that by presenting such horrific crimes in a Gothic or almost a romantic fashion, that some people are indeed “inspired” to follow in the footsteps of fiends who snuff out the lives of innocent men, women and children just for kicks.
The recently convicted Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho bomber, David Copeland, has been widely described as a Nazi and a White Supremacist. Copeland himself said he wanted to start a race war. However, it is clear from his own pronouncements that he didn't really understand politics. One of the senior police officers responsible for Copeland's arrest summed up his real motive in a nutshell: he wanted his fifteen minutes of fame. *
A film that depicts the murders of innocent people is not necessarily a bad thing. In most such films the bad guy is caught, symbolising the triumph of good over evil, if nothing else. Some such films can even be didactic, or useful social documentaries, monuments to the victims, or warnings to us that serial killers and mass murderers such as Pohl Pot and other tyrants are ordinary men like us, and that absolute power makes tyrants of everyone. But far too often, films of this nature degrade the human spirit.
They teach us that it is natural for a woman to walk down a dark alleyway and have sex with a total stranger. That “punch-ups” and car crashes can be fun. That murder can be a form of entertainment, and that the entertainment content of a film is to be measured by the “body count”. Even those films in which the bad guys are vanquished are often disguised triumphs of evil over good. In the 1970s in particular there was an entire genre of films in which criminal procedure was depicted as being a mere technicality standing in the way of bringing obviously guilty and sadistic perpetrators to justice. In these films - Dirty Harry and Taxi Driver are probably the most notorious - we see maverick police officers torture suspects to extract confessions from them, and in the case of Taxi Driver, a man on a mission sets out to rescue a young girl who has been entrapped in prostitution, and in the process shoots dead her pimp and anyone else who stands in his way.
The message of such films is clear; it's all right for the police, or for your local vigilante, to act as judge, jury and executioner. Crime is perpetrated by evil men who can and should be shot or disposed of in some other equally Draconian manner. And if only the police had the power to “clean up the streets”, life would be so much better for the rest of us.
The reality though is very different. Although we each and every one of us has free will, some have more free will than others, and crime and inhumanity are caused by deprivation and other social evils as much as by wantonness. As the Koran points out, when poverty enters a city, the Devil is close behind.
“Cleaning up the streets” involves far more than shooting dead suspected killers and torturing suspects in order to obtain confessions. If the state abandons the rule of law, there remains only tyranny. And we all suffer. Although murderers and rapists must be brought to book and made to pay for their evil deeds, the majority of people - men and women - who end up serving “hard time” are not inherently evil and can be rehabilitated if they can be removed from the vicious circle of prison, offending, homelessness, unemployment, drug abuse, etc.
In the film Taxi Driver, the “hero” was little better and maybe worse than the pimp he shot; earlier in the film he plotted the assassination of a politician, not because he considered this man to be evil - the Senator was actually a good guy - but because like David Copeland and sundry others, he wanted his fifteen minutes of fame.
This is not a plea for censorship, or even for self-censorship. Censorship of any kind is the thin edge of the wedge, and once it is accepted in principle it is quietly extended into more and more areas and more and more subjects until no one may unbutton his lip without the express permission of the state. There can be no doubt though that just as we are influenced by news and other reports, so too are we influenced by the films and other fictionalised dramatisations we watch. In some cases, particularly those of the young and vulnerable, this can have drastic consequences - the Columbine High School massacre, for example.
We should always think twice before watching a film in which murder and inhumanity are portrayed as run of the mill, where the entertainment value of a film is supposedly enhanced by the body count, or films in which entire groups of people are stereotyped, and perhaps most dangerous of all, where the forces of law and order adopt the morality of the outlaws they are trying to bring to book. When the ends are used to justify the means, evil always triumphs.
* This phrase has long since become a cliché; it was coined by the eccentric artist Andy Warhol who said that in the future everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes.
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