In 1977, Roman Polanski – then 43 – hired a thirteen year old girl as a model, convinced her mother to leave them alone for a photo shoot, forced her to take champagne and quaaludes, and then performed a number of sexual acts on her – including forced anal sex. When the case went to trial, Polanski agreed to plead guilty to “unlawful intercourse with a minor” in exchange for getting the other charges – sodomy and providing drugs to a minor – dropped. After he was convicted, he fled the country and has spent the intervening years hopping around whichever Eastern European country was least likely to extradite him.
Sounds like a crime that warrants some serious jail time, right? And his arrest on entering Switzerland over the weekend was a victory for the judicial system, right? Wrong! says The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum, in an article entitled “The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanski”:
Polanski, who panicked and fled the U.S. during that trial, has been pursued by this case for 30 years, during which time he has never returned to America, has never returned to the United Kingdom., has avoided many other countries, and has never been convicted of anything else. He did commit a crime, but he has paid for the crime in many, many ways: In notoriety, in lawyers’ fees, in professional stigma. He could not return to Los Angeles to receive his recent Oscar. He cannot visit Hollywood to direct or cast a film.
He can be blamed, it is true, for his original, panicky decision to flee. But for this decision I see mitigating circumstances, not least an understandable fear of irrational punishment.
Sorry, Anne, but the law doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to atone for your crimes by being really sorry, or by virtue of your life (as an international fugitive from justice) being really hard. People who rape children go to jail; missing the Oscars is not an equivalent punishment.
It’s a hard thing to accept, this idea that people who create beautiful things can still act in evil ways. It doesn’t seem possible that the same person who sang “California Dreamin” could also have raped his own daughter; that the man who made films like Chinatown could have had his way with a drugged-out child; that someone who could make playing football look like dancing could have killed his wife.
But the correlation doesn’t exist. Artistic talent doesn’t track with moral fortitude. And the idea that it does is how someone like Polanski can live in relative comfort for decades after he committed his crime and how, after his arrest, people like Applebaum can make this argument – not that he’s innocent, but just that he should not be punished. And that is really what is outrageous.
Update: In the twenty-minutes or so since I published this I was trying to figure out what it was about this case in particular that set me off. I wasn’t around during the Manson murders; I don’t have a good sense of how Polanski used to be viewed, or why people might have an attachment to him. And so the view being espoused by Applebaum – that Polanski should simply be let off the hook – is not only one that I have trouble understanding, it’s one that I didn’t anticipate anybody would make. And that this viewpoint is being taken seriously is what is really making me angry. A columnist at The Washington Post – one of the biggest newspapers in the country – is taking to the editorial page to argue that a child rapist shouldn’t be punished, and for no other reason that I can see than, but he seems like such a gentleman. Or, but the Pianist was such a moving film. Or, why would they target such an old man, anyway. And if people want to argue that we shouldn’t be punishing child rapists, that’s fine with me, but I don’t see why they have to be given such a venue as the Post in which to do it.