The Big C

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There was a television writers’ strike recently, but you wouldn’t have know it in our house. Nothing seemed different.

What would affect television broadcasting significantly, in my opinion, would be the eradication of Crime. The number of TV programs dealing with crime, either factually or fictionally, is tremendous. Were it not for crime, a great deal of TV time would be taken up with test patterns. The fictional detectives, lawyers, and even criminals, are much more interesting than the real ones, and certainly much more articulate. But whether it’s the steely-eyed McGarrett, or some real-life cop, one thing impresses me: the casual, automatic arrogance of law enforcement, including, to be sure, judges. (Does any judge ever consider the inconvenience to a defendant, or a respondent, in setting a date for a hearing or trial? He might take into consideration objections by the lawyers to a certain date, but no one else has anything better to do at a given time than to appear before him, a public servant, at his convenience.)

There’s hardly a re-run of Hawaii Five-0 that doesn’t include a scene of McGarrett barking an order to one of his underlings: "Bring him in. I want to talk to him." And in the real-life crime dramas, it’s similar, if less dramatic: the suspect is asked to come to the station for questioning. It’s called an "interview."

I can’t recall a single episode in which one of McGarrett’s flunkies came back and said, "Gee, boss — I told him you wanted to talk to him, and he said he didn’t want to talk to you. He wouldn’t come." Of course not! That would be the end of the program.

We often see video transcripts of real-life suspects being interviewed. I’ve yet to hear one of them say, "I don’t want to talk to you. Other than a declaration of innocence, I have nothing to say." For that matter, we never hear of any suspect, on being invited to an "interview," declining the invitation.

And from the suspect’s point of view, that’s very sad. Time after time, we see people suspected of serious crimes talking freely to detectives. Even if they do not admit guilt, they make statements which can, with some digging, be shown to be untrue, or which contradict something they might have said earlier, perhaps at the scene of the crime, years earlier. If they end up on the witness stand, they will appear, not as forgetful or mistaken, but as liars. And all because they couldn’t keep their mouths shut.

Of course, not everyone invited to an interview is a "suspect." The police may assure the interviewee of that fact. But how can the hapless individual know that he will remain in the non-suspect category? Indeed, during the interview itself, based upon some remark of the interviewee, the police may reconsider and place the subject, at least in their own minds, in the "suspect" category. Even his "body language" may place him in the "suspect" category.

It’s not only cops that expect us to talk to them. From time to time you get other requests for information, from various government agencies. How many people live in your house? What cars did you own on January 1st? Do you own an airplane or boat? What was your income? Do you rent property?

You are expected to answer these questions. And you do. It’s the willingness of the public to discuss these matters with strangers that amazes, and depresses, me. Has no one heard of the First Amendment, of the Fourth? Or don’t they apply when demands come from the very people who exist to guarantee their protection?

Although it shouldn’t be necessary to say so, I’ll say it anyway: I’m not defending criminals, or criminal acts. Justice should be done, although I’m not sure that our "justice system" can provide it. I am merely remarking at the casual — and evidently unfailing — assumption by officers of the state that their requests will be regarded as legitimate demands, and that those questioned will provide information to people who are, or might become, their enemies. Anyone has a right to keep silent, and he doesn’t just acquire that right when some official intones the Miranda warning.

How can it be a bad thing to keep mum? Can it be a crime?

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is author of All Work & No Pay, which is out of print, but may occasionally be obtained on eBay.

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