Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt |
Michael Bettencourt
Red Rover, Red Rover

March 2013

No, this does not refer to the game but to an episode of The Mentalist in season four (May 2012), which, at least for a pretty mainstream police procedural, raised itchy questions about the link between revenge, torture, and justice that also link to our current governmental acceptance of brutality in the service of liberty.

In the episode, a man is murdered by being buried alive — not interred in a coffin but locked in a metal box in an abandoned industrial building.  All of Patrick Jane's attempts to get the man he knows is the murderer to confess fail because the murderer is perfectly amoral and thus presents no weakness that Jane can exploit.

So Jane (already driven partly mad by his search for Red John, the serial killer who murdered his wife and daughter) lures the murderer to a cemetery and stuffs him into a coffin in a freshly prepared grave, linked to the outside world by a video baby monitor that he stole from his fellow agent Wayne Rigsby, a new-minted father who had bought one for the baby's bedroom.

Being put into the same situation as the man he murdered finally cracks the veneer — the man is terrified, and Jane watches his terror on the baby monitor, refusing to do anything until the man admits to the murder, which he does, while Theresa Lisbon, his boss and friend, watches the whole thing in both horror and a sickened admiration.

The morality of the torture doesn't matter to Jane because legal process is not his concern — justice is.  His bottom line is that no murderer should ever be allowed to escape the murder he or she does, and if legal principles get in the way of getting the truth, then the principles should be ignored in service to the higher purpose of making someone pay for an immoral act.  Balance in the world requires it.

Yes, it's only an episode in TV-land, so it doesn't delve into the issues that it raises, but the issues are there nevertheless for review.  What are these issues?  Is torture justified if it extracts the truth (assuming we can even identify it)?  What is the connection between legal rules (which are means to an institutional end) and justice (with its moral struggles about fairness, reciprocal punishments, payment of debts)?  Is vengeance only personal, or can there be an institutional vengeance, done in the name of a "people," outfitted with policies and subject to protocols?  Does the end ever justify the means, or do illicit means always infect the end, even if the end result, by everyone's lights, is warranted?

However, as interesting as these questions are, they need to be given a "local habitation and a name" for them to have any weight, and that has to be the United States in this year of our Lord (and probably for many more years to come).  I want to say that we are a lesser country after multiple years of visiting mayhem upon the world, but that would mean that we had once been a greater country and had fallen from some sort of grace, and I can't say that.  In fact, I don't even know what the word "country" means, since the United States feels more like a crazy quilt of festering lunacies and selective histories than what is usually meant by a "nation" or a "people" — certainly not something from which one could have a fall from grace.

I think we need to accept that if the United States is anything close to a nation or a people at this moment, it is one defined by and ruled by Patrick Jane's practice of vengeful cruelty — but without any of his redeeming, if ambiguous, accomplishments.  This cruelty is not only practiced upon the bodies of foreigners elsewhere in the world — we practice it upon ourselves on a daily basis.  Given the free-floating violence permeating everything in this culture, at any moment any one of us can be considered outside the pale and ripe for execution.  In one sense we have achieved what our rhetoric has always wanted us to achieve, to become a class-free and race-free society, except that now this equality means that everyone is equally in someone else's cross-hairs and one trigger-squeeze away from oblivion.  We may think we have achieved a great Enlightenment-based society, but it really is closer to Hobbes' war of every man against every man.

I used to feel great dismay at this disparity between what America is and what it could be if only it would come its senses and do the right thing!  (Sorry — got away from me.)  Now, I don't think it has any senses to come to — anything that might have been used as a basis for some kind of regeneration of purpose has been sullied or falsified beyond repair, and all that fills the air is shrill complaint and poisonous threat.  I don't know what this means for the practice of being a citizen.  I don't know what it means for trying to figure out a balance between public witness and private insularity.  I don't know what to do, and I don't know how to handle not knowing what to do.

Red rover, red rover, send an answer right over — soon.

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©2013 Michael Bettencourt
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

Read his theatre reviews in Scene4's Qreviews
For more of his Scene4 columns and articles, check the Archives
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March 2013

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