Last night, I re-watched The Untouchables, the 1987 action/crime drama about Eliot Ness and his handpicked police team who brought down Al Capone and his bootlegger gang. It’s a well-made and fast-paced movie, with good performances by Sean Connery, Kevin Costner and Robert de Niro. I had watched it in college a good 7 years back and remember liking it quite a bit.
But last night, I couldn’t get myself to enjoy it much.
To enjoy a movie like this, you have to root for the good guys, in this case the cops. But the cops are enforcing the prohibition law. It is impossible for me to forget that.
A case can be made, and indeed is made in the movie, that the cops are just doing their duty. They are not responsible for the framing of laws, good or bad. Yet we rightly condemn not just Hitler and the other top Nazis, but also those smaller agents who actually implemented the acts of incredible evil conceived or masterminded by the former. (At what point does moral culpability extend from the planners to the executors? When, despite the fact that you are just doing your sworn duty, can you no longer escape responsibility? These are interesting moral questions I have no comprehensive answers to.)
The prohibition law was not just a bad law. It was an evil law. It criminalized an acitivity that violates no one’s rights and gives a lot of people pleasure. It inevitably led to a vast underground trade in illicit liquor. The result was violence and death. When people were not dying at the hands of the cops or the liquor gangs, they were dying as a result of poisoning. To prevent bootleggers from using industrial ethyl alcohol to produce illegal beverages, the government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. In response, bootleggers hired chemists who successfully renatured the alcohol to make it drinkable. The government ordered th poisoning of alcohol through more deadly means. As many as 10,000 people died from drinking denatured alcohol before Prohibition ended.
I see the raids by Ness on liquor manufacturers and I see an oppressive state violating the rights of its citizens. I see the deaths in the movie and I do not blame Capone; I blame the government. The government is the aggressor here, the initiator of the cycle of violence; Capone is merely giving people what they want. I see Ness killing a bad guy and avenging the murder of his dead partner, and I do not feel satisfaction; I cringe at this instance of abuse of power. And through it all, I think of modern times, where there are about a hundred raids every day as part of the war on drugs, a foolish, evil, violent policy that accounts for more lives lost or destroyed every year than abuse of drugs can ever achieve.
And I cannot forget it all just because it is a movie. Even though Ness and his crew are portrayed as hardworking honest cops, I cannot in my heart ignore that the law they are upholding is a terrible one. I guess that’s the main difference between the person I was then and am now. I know more and I cannot shut it off as easily.