For those who think that our ethical sensitivities don’t evolve for the better over time, I prescribe a careful viewing of that family classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
At the film’s climax, George Bailey, the self-sacrificing hero who has been granted his inadvertent wish to see what the world would be like if he had never been born, finds the love of his life and (in the life he has given up for this dystopian hell) the mother of his children now unmarried, alone and working as a librarian despite the fact that she looks like Donna Reed. He embraces her, and since she’s never met him in this alternate reality, she screams, believing she is being sexually assaulted by a madman. Kind, jovial police officer Bert is summoned to quell the ruckus, and George, who is a bit upset, punches him in the face to avoid arrest, and runs away. Bert then takes out his pistol and fires it at George repeatedly.
He’s a lousy shot.
In 1946, when audiences first saw this film, nobody thought there was anything unusual about Bert’s professional conduct. Many, many films right through the 1960s show police officers, “good guys,” even ones not trapped in a strangely mean alternate reality like Ward Bond’s Bert, shooting at fleeing suspects or criminals. That was considered appropriate police procedure then, and the public, society and U.S. culture saw nothing amiss. You were expected, as a good citizen, to submit to a police officer’s lawful authority. If you resisted arrest and ran, then it was fair and reasonable for the officer to shoot you, ideally after a “Stop or I’ll shoot!” warning. Indeed, many people were shot, and killed, this way. If it was news, it wasn’t on the front page, and it wasn’t considered any kind of an outrage.
Now consider the public and media reaction to Michael T. Slager’s shooting of Walter Scott. We now know that Scott was resisting arrest: he had a bench warrant out on him for non-payment of over $18,000 in child support, and Slager was trying to bring him into custody. Instead of doing as the officer demanded, Scott resisted and ran. Burt would have shot at his back too; the difference is that Slager is a better shot, and George was faster. Slager, however, is completely reviled across the country; even his own lawyer found him so repugnant that he refused to represent him.
That represents a massive shift in cultural values in a little over half a century.
What changed us? The Sixties, mostly. The civil rights movement exposed police departments as often brutal and corrupt. The treatment of anti-war protesters, some too young to shave, showed police violence at its worst. The ugly scene broadcast live outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention made the automatic presumption that the police are the “good guys” difficult to maintain. Then a series of Supreme Court decisions like Miranda (1966) exposed the injustice of long-standing police practices, like “sweating” confessions out of suspects, or just beating them into submission. A whole generation that came of age in the era of free love, drugs and protests distrusted police, and the other generations began seeing some justification in their sentiments.
Hollywood, as usual, also played a part in the cultural shift. In the Sixties, the ones shooting fleeing, unarmed people in the back were almost always the bad guys, and usually Nazis or Communists. “He vas shot vile trying to escape,” in movies like “The Great Escape” (1963) was a German euphemism for murder. Eventually laws were passed in every state forbidding law enforcement officers to shoot at fleeing suspects.
I’m surprised this shift took so long. Shooting someone in the back was a long-standing taboo before police embraced it. The Code of the West inveighed against shooting an unarmed man; Gene Autry’s version included as the #1 prohibition, the cowboy’s prime directive,
1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
The most iconic portrayer of cowboy heroes and Western virtue of them all, John Wayne, never shot a villain in the back in any of his 250+ movies, and refused to do so in his final movie when the script called for it. In the original screenplay for “The Shootist,” (1976) Wayne, playing an old gunfighter dying of cancer, celebrates his birthday by arranging a mass showdown in a saloon with three men pledged to kill him. He kills them all in a fair fight, but is shot in the back by the saloon-keeper, who tries to run out of the bar. The fatally wounded gunfighter kills him with one shot. As related by Don Siegel, the film’s director, Wayne refused to do it, and insisted that the scene be re-written.
Siegel was furious, and suggested that the Duke’s objection made no sense; after all, the man had just shot him in the back. ( This is the unethical rationalization “Tit-for tat”! ) Wayne, who like his character was dying of cancer (but may not have known it), replied that he had spent his entire four decade career creating an American archetype who represented certain core values, and would not violate them in what might be his last movie role. He told Siegel that if he wanted “J.B. Books” to shoot a man in the back, he would have to find another actor to play his part.
They changed the script. Later, Siegel wrote that he realized that Wayne’s stand was a perfect example of professional and personal integrity.
So it seems that eventually the American culture came around to an ethical consensus that had always been there.
It’s a more wonderful life when you live in a country where the police don’t shoot people in the back.