Thursday, February 13, 2014

Some Thoughts on TV Shows and Civil Rights

Outside my study window, snow is falling heavily (as it has been since last night at about 8:00). It looks like we've got somewhere around 6 to 8 inches of snow now, and in a few hours, it's supposed to change to freezing rain and sleet before changing back into snow later in the afternoon. A snowplow just came down the street and pushed everything into our driveways before heading back up the hill and laughing.

Next year, I will NOT forget to pay the Spring Bill.

But let's forget the snow for a while and talk about other things, like what we learn from television shows.

You might recall from my answer to Angel's question in the last "Ask Bilbo" post that I don't watch a great deal of TV, although there are a few shows that I enjoy, among them NCIS and Bones. Agnes, for her part, likes Criminal Minds and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, which are too dark and violent for me.

I like NCIS and Bones largely because of their ensemble casts of quirky characters who somehow work well together. On NCIS, I'm in lust with Abby, the goth forensic scientist who seems to combine brilliant and bizarre in just the right measure. On Bones, I like the character of Dr Temperence Brennan (the titular "Bones") who is both tremendously intelligent and completely and hysterically devoid of people skills, which makes for some great dialog.

But although I enjoy those shows, and some other police-type programs, I find that they trouble me ... mostly because of the cavalier attitude they portray toward our civil and constitutional rights.

Consider some of the standard scenes that appear in almost every episode of the modern police procedural:

- The authorities routinely employ a few keystrokes on their computers to troll through the "financials" of persons of interest, thumbing through bank account statements and other financial data without the least mention of bothersome things like search warrants.

- When a "person of interest" is identified, police officers or special agents* are gruffly directed to "bring 'em in" for an interview/interrogation - again, without discussion of warrants. These scenes frequently end up with the individual so brought in being shouted at and accused of the crime ... which almost invariably proves to have been committed by someone else (this scene is a feature of almost every episode of Bones, with Special Agent Seely Booth doing the shouting and threatening).

- People are routinely tracked by GPS location of their cell phones, or by reviewing footage from traffic cameras and other surveillance devices.

- Individuals in custody are frequently manhandled, sometimes brutally, by the authorities who have arrested them.

Now, don't get me wrong ... I have no problem with our law enforcement agencies doing what they need to do to bring down criminals and terrorists and other such evildoers, as long as it's within the limits of the law they are sworn to uphold. But the depiction of law enforcement agencies in popular entertainment blithely ignoring the civil liberties of individuals creates a poor image of those we trust to protect us. Worse, it gives a skewed impression of the abilities and powers they can bring to bear against the average citizen, feeding the worst paranoid fantasies of the tinfoil hat-wearing fringe and causing a backlash against police and intelligence-gathering capabilities that are legal when properly employed.

So ...

Enjoy your favorite TV shows, but remember the skewed vision of police powers and civil rights they present. The law enforcement and intelligence communities need certain powers and capabilities to do their jobs ... but we need to recognize the rights and freedoms we have a right to expect. The dividing line is often hard to discern in the era of high technology and information presented out of context, wildly distorted, or in pursuit of private agendas.

Remember Bilbo's First Law**.

Have a good day. Stay warm and dry. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Did you ever wonder why everyone in these shows is a "special" agent? When does an ordinary, garden-variety "agent" graduate to becoming a "special" agent? Discuss.

** Never let anyone else do your thinking for you.


Grand Crapaud said...

Why is everyone Special Agents? I blame it on Mr. Rogers, who said that they "were special."

Duckbutt said...

There's often an exaggeration of both the law enforcement and criminals are larger and more competent than their real-life prototypes. Most criminals are sad sacks of shit, not supervillians; and most cops are everyday police. Due protess in fiction is not usually scrupulously followed.

Mike said...

When these suspects get hauled in I'm always hollering at the screen 'ASK FOR A LAWYER!'

allenwoodhaven said...

I give these shows a bit of a break. After all, they only have an hour (much less with all the commercials)to solve crimes that might often go unsolved. And they occasionally do get warrants when forced to do so.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Scriptwriters tend to oversimplify procedures and legal nuances in part to fit in with time constraints and also because hey have limited knowledge about the specific area they're writing on. This is especially true in hour long television programs.

They don't ordinarily go out and round up the usual suspects; doing that is more trouble than it's worth; plus it can cause the ACLU to participate and create a distraction.

The bottom line: prosecutors want as air-tight a case as possible.

Insane Penguin said...

Are Special Agents self-appointed, or do they have to earn enough agent merit badges to qualify?