Only In The Movies

In George Stevens’ 1942 “Talk of the Town” law professor Michael Lightcap (Ronald Coleman) holds off a lynch mob going after local agitator Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) with the revelation of the truth about a supposed arson and these words.

This is your law, your finest possession. It makes you free men in a free country. Why have you come here to destroy it? If you know what’s good for you take those weapons home and burn them, and then think. Think of this country. The law that makes it what it is. Think of a world crying for this very law. Then maybe you’ll understand why you ought to guard it. Why the law has got to be the personal concern of every citizen, to uphold it for your neighbor as well as yourself. Violence against it is one mistake. Another mistake is for any man to look upon the law as just a set of principles, just so much language printed on fine heavy paper, something he recites and then leans back and takes it for granted that justice is automatically being done. Both kinds of men are equally wrong! The law must be engraved in our hearts and practiced every minute –to the letter and spirit! It can’t even exist unless we are willing to go down into the dust and blood and fight a battle every day of our lives to preserve it for our neighbor as well as ourselves!

In one of those startling education-by-juxtaposition moments, I heard these words last night just after reading the latest revelations about the Gonzalez Department of Justice. In a secret opinion in February 2005, reversing a previous public opinion, torture was declared to be legal.

The new opinion, the officials said, for the first time provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.

Then, when Congress later in the year tried to outlaw “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment, this same Department of Justice secretly wrote another opinion which declared that none of the then-in-use interrogation methods of the CIA violated the proposed standard.

Secret Approval for Torture

Some Department of Justice lawyers objected. In fact there were rumors of mass resignations. James Comey, the Deputy Attorney General, told colleagues at the department that they would all be “ashamed” when the world eventually learned of it. But then he left. Quietly.

As in so many cases during the run up to the war and the years following those who “are willing to go down into the dust and blood and fight a battle every day of our lives to preserve the law for our neighbor as well as ourselves,” have not appeared. People who knew and who had the information and standing to make a difference — did not.

Perhaps these sentiments of law as the bed rock of democracy and of heroes arising to fight for it are only to be found in the film scripts of left-wing writers [Sidney Harmon, Irwin Shaw, Sidney Buchman]. If so, we are in trouble far more than we know.

If such dreams and beliefs are deeper and are truly part of the American character then it is time to bring them out of the descending darkness.

It is time to say to everyone, those with great power and those with single voices, the great shut-up is over.

It is time to find courage.

It is time to take the fight to the law breakers, to those who believe only in power released from all constraints.

It is time to understand how far our leaders have strayed from our foundational beliefs.

It is time.

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