Attorney General William Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement officer, said in a recent interview that he understands the appeal of the vigilante justice portrayed in films like “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish.”
“I believe a sense of justice is hardwired into human beings,” Barr said in an interview on Crime Story podcast. “Don’t ask me why, but it is there and it’s satisfying to see justice done.”
Barr speculated that films like “Dirty Harry” (1971), which starred Clint Eastwood as a detective who takes the law into his own hands, resonated with the American public’s impatience with the courts.
“Americans have tended recently to view [justice] more as a process, as if the criminal justice process is justice, and it isn’t,” Barr said. “It’s a process that’s supposed to achieve justice, but very frequently doesn’t. As we were talking earlier, that’s the theme in the ‘Dirty Harry’ movies and so forth.”
Eastwood’s character in “Dirty Harry” is hamstrung by legal restrictions in his attempt to arrest a murderer. In its final scene the officer ignores what Barr might call the formal “process,” shoots the killer in defiance of the law and throws his police badge away.
“There’s that scene in ‘Dirty Harry’ where I think the guy has kidnapped somebody who is running out of oxygen, has a few minutes to live. Dirty Harry asks, ‘Where is she?’ And the other guy smirks at him and he shoots him in the leg or something and the guy tells him where it is,” Barr added. “I say, now, was that an unjust or morally repellent act? Is the reason that the audience applauds when that happens because the audience is morally bankrupt? Or is there something else going on there? So I think these are interesting issues.”
Barr credited “the strategy of incapacitation” — long prison sentences for repeat criminals — for the decline in crime in the U.S. since its peak in the early 1990s. “From that time forward, the American prison population steadily increased to where it is today and the crime rate has gone down, and been halved in that period,” he said.
The attorney general also singled out the 1974 film “Death Wish,” in which Charles Bronson plays an urban vigilante who hunts down violent criminals after his wife is murdered.
“‘Death Wish,’ yeah,” Barr said. “That kind of thing that gives people a sense of satisfaction when they see it. There are a lot of issues that come up even today in fighting terrorism and other things where these issues are pitted against each other.”
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