Parenting, Justice, and Media

Last night, I went to go see the new Mission: Impossible movie, because I’ve strangely had the desire to go to a movie theater of late. I even managed to get there early enough to see all of the coming attractions. One of them struck a chord with me, as it tangentially resonated with a discussion I had with my father yesterday morning. The trailer was for the movie Secret in Their Eyes. That particular trailer kept rattling around in my mind, even as the movie itself played (side note: MI basically lives up to the hype and is generally worth seeing, though I do look forward to the CinemaSins…).

In the event that you didn’t click the link above, the gist is that a homicide detective is called to investigate a murder, only to find that it’s her daughter. The trailer indicates that the killer was brought to court, and walked free on some sort of technicality. Naturally, things get messy as we see the parent head down a rather dark path.


This brought two things to my mind. Keep in mind that I’m basing this solely on what’s present in the trailer; the movie is still approximately three months away from release. The first is that the killer walking may be a good thing. We live in a society where one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Blackstone’s formulation is well known – “It is better that ten guilty men go free, than one innocent man suffer”. The more I read of John Adams’s work, the more I believe that he may well be my favorite president. He described the situation this way:

It is more important that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt be punished; for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world, that all of them cannot be punished…. when innocence itself, is brought to the bar and condemned, especially to die, the subject will exclaim, ‘it is immaterial to me whether I behave well or ill, for virtue itself is no security.’ And if such a sentiment as this were to take hold in the mind of the subject that would be the end of all security whatsoever.

Suppose the issue was that the evidence was not properly gathered. Terrible as it is, the killer walks free despite his guilt. The alternative is to mitigate the value of properly acquiring evidence, as long as it proves guilt. The logical conclusion of this is a society where law enforcement could break into somebody’s house to acquire evidence for a trial. Alternatively, law enforcement could collect evidence of any observed wrongdoing, regardless of the problem for which the warrant and/or ‘probable cause’ was invoked. Is that the way society should function? Parallel construction is already a practice that’s on the table, is extending such a practice truly a benefit to society? I certainly don’t think so.

The problem thereafter is like it – the trailer seems to convey the idea that “bending the rules is okay because a child died”. As an audience, we’re led in a direction that causes us to focus solely on the injustice felt by the mother; the impetus to see the movie is because we ask, “will they catch him?”. The trailer gave no indication that there was a question of guilt being asked, though let’s face it – trailers can be misleading. We presume his guilt. We presume that they’re having trouble bringing him back to court because of double jeopardy. We presume that the protagonists must consider vigilante justice because the system failed. We assume that they are right, and those opposing them are wrong. And every parent in the audience will side with the mother on the screen.


Think about this for a moment: As an audience, we are led to side with a parent who is willing to put aside due process, when her very job is performing due process.


Let’s tell this story from the perspective of another parent: The mother of the (presumed) killer. She must watch as a group of police officers vilify her son, take him into custody, make a public spectacle of him (thus, ruining his life regardless of the outcome), have the court declare him ‘not guilty’…and then have the detectives continue to hunt him down because they don’t like what the judge and jury had to say. What about that mother? If he’s innocent, she’ll have to live through the pain of watching him go on trial for a crime he didn’t commit. If he’s guilty, she’ll have to live with the fact that her son is a murderer. Is it the same as finding one’s child murdered? No, it isn’t – but that mother is given precisely zero screen time in the trailer.

I am sure many of you are saying something like, “the difference is…her son was the perpetrator, so her son should face the music.” True as that may well be, such reason brings us back to Blackstone’s formulation. How far, as a society, are we willing to go, to bring Blackstone’s ratio down from 10:1? Shall we allow warrantless home searches? Shall we revoke the fifth amendment? Shall we expand the NSA wiretapping? At what point do the number of stipulations on the presumption of innocence become so great that there is no longer that protection?

We see a story like this play out in murder dramas all the time. I like NCIS and Castle as much as a few million other people, but I recognize that Gibbs and Beckett have a tendency to ignore the rules when it doesn’t suit them. Due Process is seen as an obstacle to get around, rather than a structure designed to protect the innocent. In these series (and plenty more), as well as Secret in Their Eyes, we’re presented with a scenario designed to trigger an emotional response – one that causes us to bypass logic, reason, and presumption of innocence…because it’s a child who was the victim. Without going too far down the “tin foil hat” path, I wonder if there is a concerted effort to influence our society to be more willing to give up our constitutional rights in this respect. An even more chilling thought: are these depictions of the lack of importance of due process a reflection of a mindset that’s already taken hold? Would a murder trial in 2015 ever be likely to see someone in a jury box willing to assume the role of Juror #8?


Yesterday morning, I was speaking with my father about the fact that, like most parents with adult children, he’s looking forward to being a grandparent to my offspring. I’ve made it no secret to those around me that I have neither desire nor intention to reproduce. There are a number of reasons for my feelings in this regard – an aversion to dirty diapers and sleepless nights being amongst them, another being sense of worry that I’ll mess up and either through inaction cause my child harm, or become a ‘helicopter parent’ that childproofs the world, rather than worldproofing the child.

My aversion goes deeper though – there’s a reason I filed this post under ‘philosophy’. I do everything I can to keep a clear head and level perspective. I’m not always successful, but it really is my goal to lend credence to all known sides of a situation, even those I don’t necessarily agree with, in order to ultimately achieve a reasonable and informed opinion.

How can I do that when I’m a parent? Is it truly possible for me to give equal credence to both my child and the other when both say that the other threw the first punch? Is it better or worse for me to side with the little league coach if I think he’s right? If I were the father of the victim in Secret in Their Eyes, and the court found him “not guilty”, would I really be able to say to myself, “well, it’s better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer, so my child’s killer walks, but at least the judge didn’t admit the irrefutable evidence of his guilt because no warrant was issued!”?  Let’s even, by some miracle, say that I was able to have that mentality – the mentality that says that I respect the justice system as a consequence of living in a civilized society, even when my child is dead. What of those around me? Will my wife agree with me, or will my belief in due process so violently clash with her maternal instinct that we’re stuck in either a lifelong stalemate or a divorce? Will my friends and family think that I didn’t really love my child because I choose to respect the rights of her murderer? Given the opportunity to look my child’s murderer in the eye, will I be more upset with myself for punching him in the face, or for not doing so? Will I be able to deal with the fact that her death will always be the elephant in the room of every party I ever host, perpetually looked upon with pity and sympathy by well meaning friends and family whose outcomes betray their intentions?

I am forced to conclude that a mindset that upholds the value of due process and the rights of others over the life of my child, and a disdain for the mindset that prioritizes the life of one child over the legal rights of another, is one that makes me unfit to become a parent.



Spoiler warning: Tom Cruise doesn’t die in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.

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