Roman Polanski was finally arrested this weekend in Switzerland, and will face charges for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Ordinarily I would say "allegedly," but I don't have to in this case; he pled guilty, and has never disputed the charges. (You can read the original grand jury testimony here, but I warn you that it is (a) graphic and (b) depressing.)
Much of the blogosphere is up in arms about the arrest. I'm not, because the fact that he has gotten away with what he did for decades is an example of reverse profiling; instead of being targeted for being poor, brown, and marginalized, he has been protected for being wealthy, fair-skinned, and popular.
And none of the arguments against Polanski's prosecution are particularly convincing from a civil liberties perspective. Yes, the survivor, now 45, has forgiven him. That is her right; nobody should criticize her for it. And this would be the end of the story if this were a civil proceeding, where she would be the plaintiff. But criminal trials are not based strictly on the idea of retribution and compensation, like civil trials are; they're based on restoration and deterrent effect. She should not be forced to participate in the trial, but if there is still a viable case, the criminal justice system is doing its job by prosecuting a sexual predator. One of the benefits of the way our criminal justice system handles domestic violence and sexual assault claims is that it does not force the survivor to stand as accuser. That role is filled by the state, acting in the state's interests, which provides a necessary buffer between the survivor and the assailant. The assailant stands condemned, in the parlance of the court, by "The People."
Another argument, featured in a recent Washington Post column by Anne Applebaum, is that "Polanski did not know [his target's] real age." Well, given that he had asked her mother for permission to conduct a photo shoot, he presumably knew she was a minor. But even if he somehow didn't, assuming her contemporaneous account of the assault is accurate (and, again, this has never been seriously disputed), he drugged her with alcohol and Quaaludes until she was unable to resist, ignored the fact that she verbally asked him to stop, and sexually assaulted her. This would have been horrific even if she were an adult, and it is difficult to see how Polanski could have believed that she was.
We're supposed to sympathize with Polanski because he led a very difficult life. As Applebaum puts it:
Polanski's mother died in Auschwitz. His father survived Mauthausen. He himself survived the Krakow ghetto, and later emigrated from communist Poland. His pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered in 1969 by the followers of Charles Manson...
That's hard to contemplate. That's hard to absorb. I can't imagine what going through all of that might do to somebody's mind. But we're all products of our biology and our environment. We all have things in our past, or in our makeup, that make up who we are and lead us to do the things we do. No human behavior, no matter how horrible, falls outside of this dynamic. These are explanations; they are not excuses. And the fact that Polanski's explanations are tragic, that any decent person will feel some sympathy for what he has had to go through, does not erase his crime.
Roman Polanski is a convicted sex offender who has lived on the run for over three decades. A less wealthy and influential man might have spent those three decades in prison instead of making films that have been, by most accounts, some of the greatest of the twentieth century. That's a lucky break for the film industry, but a stain on our criminal justice system. He should be extradited to the United States, and he should spend some time in prison. He'll only get a slap on the wrist--that's one of the benefits of being Roman Polanski. But if the concept of equal justice means anything to us, he should at least get that much.