Empathy and Ethics Insanity in Hollywood: “CSI New York”

In this week’s episode of C.S.I. New York, entitled “Unusual Suspects,” a 14-year old is shot and his younger brother intentionally misleads the police regarding the shooter, identifying the wrong suspect who is ultimately chased by the police and fatally hit by a bus while trying to flee. Eventually the truth comes out. The two boys–armed with a gun!—robbed a bank, and the older boy, who engineered the crime, was shot by a man who subsequently took the loot from them.

The boys knocked over the bank because they overheard their mother say that she couldn’t pay the rent. This is apparently sufficient justification for the bank and the District Attorney to decide not to press charges against the little dears. As the show ends, two of the C.S.I. squad look in on the hospital room, misty-eyed. where the wounded boy lies recovering, as his brother and mother sit vigil by his bed.

“There’s a lot of love in that room,” observes one of the officers.

A lot of felons, too.

Let me get this straight. Children and teens are routinely prosecuted for vandalism, for drug dealing and possession, for stealing cars, for throwing rocks at cars, for shoplifting and downloading copyrighted music, but an armed robbery of a bank that directly results in the death of one person and the shooting of another warrants no action by the justice system at all, because…well, because it was done for a good reason.

Two kids robbed a bank, using a gun, and no crime is charged. The message being sent by “C.S.I. New York’s” writers is apparently that it isn’t the conduct or the law that makes something a crime, it’s the circumstances, and if the circumstances are sympathetic enough, why, there just isn’t any crime. This, certifiably nuts as it is, is the only message they can be sending, because the message that kids are not accountable to the laws of society would be an outright lie. Yes, there are mitigating circumstances in this scenario. Yes, I could support a plea deal in which the kids were put on probation and served no jail time, although that’s only a slap on the wrist for armed robbery. But nothing? Nothing?

Maybe this explains the mysterious logic of support for illegal immigration in California and elsewhere; indeed, maybe the two positions are organically linked. Illegal immigrants break U.S. laws to come here in order to support their families and live a better life, and those noble motivations render the laws null and void. Is that the thinking? Similarly, as long as you are only robbing  the bank to help your mother, there’s nothing really criminal about it. Empathy! Empathy trumps the law.

This is, of course, an endorsement of the process of grafting rationalizations onto lawless activities, which can be used to justify almost anything. Good intentions and sympathetic law-breakers can not justify the waiver of our laws. The fact that the entertainment industry, one of the most influential cultural forces in the nation has come to believe otherwise and apparently is no longer capable of recognizing how irresponsible its position is, should frighten us all.

8 thoughts on “Empathy and Ethics Insanity in Hollywood: “CSI New York”

  1. Jack,
    Not that I disagree with the ethical issues at hand, but it’s a fictional TV show and, as such, can’t really be considered an “endorsement” of anything. Or does this mean you’ll soon be writing a piece discussing the ethics fouls of Jean Valjean and his fateful bread heist?

    I realize, of course, any number of people get any number of crazy ideas based on what they’ve seen on television, but that doesn’t mean writer’s of fictional works have an obligation to write only ethical characters. After all, compared to shows like the Sopranos, something this trivial doesn’t even count as an ethical faux pas.


    • There has to be a line, though. TV dramas are drenched in realism unless they aren’t; this episode wasn’t intended to be thought-provoking or ironic or challenging—it just assumed that a “a happy ending” included letting kids who robbed a bank escape with no punishment whatsoever. Fictional or not, that’s an ethical assertion, and we can’t just shrug and say “whatever.”

  2. This is different from when that blonde guy on House killed that dictator and was struggling with it. Of course the Hippocratic Oath should have prevented him from doing it. It was bad ethics (and hopefully, most people would recognize the badness of it, at least from the standpoint of a DOCTOR), but it was good TV.

    This is neither.

    • And the point of the House episode WAS that it was bad ethics. The writers were aware that the character had in fact done a terrible wrong by medical ethics standards , and would escape sanction for it. There is no similar ethical awareness in evidence on the C.S.I. episode. It seems clear that the writers feel that the ending is the just result—the armed robbery, despite its multiple bad consequences, is “excusable” because it was done for a good motive;we are supposed to only feel sorry for the kids, not hold them the least bit accountable; and that the audience will agree. There is no implied ambiguity or irony in the ending at all.

      • Jack,
        But it it WAS done for a good motive — entertainment. I have to admit that your stance on this confuses me, especially considering a previous post in you mentioned how good the Dark Knight was even though you disagreed with nearly all its ethical points. How is this any different? The case involved was completely fictional, no murder or accidental death actually took place, and I think most people are smart enough to understand the difference.

        I realize you’re not asserting that the episode be pulled or otherwise banned, but this comes too close to talk of censorship and “standards.” All writing, unethical or not, should be fair game (especially in the realm of fiction) and arguing otherwise would seem to diminish artistic freedom. Sorry, but I can’t get behind this one ..


        • All entertainment carries messages, subliminal or open, metaphorical or otherwise. I don’t believe a comic book-based entertainment is held to anything but comic book world ethics, so while Batman can be unethical as a hero, I don’t think the work is signaling it approval of unethical values. CSI: MIami, based on that episode, was endorsing an unethical standard…or proposing one. They have a right to do that. I find that standard offensive. I also found it offensive on a Law and Order SUV episode where the police went out of their way to let an illegal immigrant keep evading the law.

          This is different from the “Dark Knight” because it obligates me and anyone else who sees it to let everyone know that it is just plain dead wrong. Kids especially. This is a creeping ethic in American society that is being played out in the immigration issue and elsewhere, and Hollywood exerts it influence in show like this. It’s OK to break immigration laws to “follow your dream.” Terrorist acts can be rationalized if you are frustrated and poor enough. The ending wasn’t necessary for entertainment; it was a political/moral judgment, and an irresponsible one.

        • It doesn’t compromise artistic freedom to register strong objections to a work on ethical grounds. I think “JFK” was despicable—great art, if you discard the content. I don’t want to squelch the art, but art that misleads, mis-educates and slanders needs to be criticized on that basis.

  3. It comes down to your definitions of “art”, “censorship” and “tolerance”. I find it interesting that one man’s objection can result in little girls sharing bathrooms with cross-dressers, displays of Christian faith being taken down or refused or a multitude of other recent outrages. YET… the entertainment industry can saturate every venue of public communications with gross violence, perverse concepts and child porn (mostly aimed at kids) and get away with it by screaming “censorship” when people object. It’s the long established right of communities to stand against immoral public displays that threaten their children’s morals… or involve other children in their making. When we allow this, in fact, we aid the filmmakers in doing things in public that we, as ordinary citizens, would likely be sent to jail for in presenting or expousing ourselves.

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