Roman Polanski has finally been arrested and is being extradited to the U.S.
I’ve made my opinions on this issue excruciatingly clear in the past, but I’ll repeat: Polanski is a great filmmaker, and I love many of his movies. But he needs to be punished for raping a 13-year-old girl.
In most cases, I tend to have a negative view of doggedly pursuing a criminal decades after the crime, but there are exceptions. In this case, I think that that the pressing need to send the message that fame and fortune doesn’t give you a free pass to rape is worth the resources and effort put on bringing him in. The story is generating headlines. Polanski has his loud defenders, who mix up affection for his work with a belief that he’s above the law, but that can’t be helped. The message still needs to be sent.
Every story I’ve read dwells on the man bites dog element they think is there: The victim has said she wants to put this to bed. This is not as surprising as people would seem to think, nor is it a reason to let Polanski go. Victims of sexual or domestic violence are, for completely understandable reasons, mostly intent on getting acknowledgment that what happened was real, and that it was not their fault. And then they want to move on with their lives. Her needs were filled when she won a lawsuit against Polanski, and she has healed, I’m sure. But these kinds of crimes aren’t just about the current victim, but the larger problem. Polanski committed his crime before rape and the sexual abuse of children were really considered serious crimes. Punishing him can help as a collective retribution of our society’s former values, and a way to assert new ones. One case that comes to mind is the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen 41 years after he conspired to kill three civil rights workers in Mississippi. These kinds of cases are about symbolically rejecting a history of racist violence and trying, at least, to move forward. And while I’m not trying to compare the crimes in severity—again, the victim in the Polanski case is thriving, and obviously the murdered men are not—I sincerely think there’s a useful lesson here about the importance of facing up to our history and doing what we can to make the necessary changes.