Friday, July 18, 2008

We're All In This Together

The new television series on CTV and CBS

In his masterpiece, The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett needed to depict a culture vastly different from that of the late 20th century United Kingdom. He needed a scene to set the stage at the beginning of the book--a single dramatic scene--that told readers they were entering a barbaric world of cruelty and inhumanity.

He chose a hanging.

He described the tense anticipation of the gathering villagers, the boys eager for front-row position so they could see the noose go around the criminal's neck, hear his neck snap, and experience every twitch of the dying man's convulsing body. A hanging was first-rate entertainment in 12th century England. Back then, there were good guys, and there were bad guys. Bad guys got what was coming to them. Good guys got to enjoy seeing the bad guys suffer and die.

As it turns out, the entertainment choices in 21st century North America are not all that different from those of 12th century England. The last hanging in the UK occurred in 1964. The UK abolished the death penalty in 1969, and Canada followed suit in 1976. But south of the border, where most of our entertainment is manufactured, capital punishment is used frequently. After all, the criminals are bad guys. And it's a lot of fun to see the bad guys suffer and die. The American demand for retribution is a defining aspect of 21st century American culture. Crime dramas in the States must end with the criminal facing "justice."

Tonight, a movie director, David Frazee, needed to depict a culture very different from normal television fare. He had to create a cop show that did not appeal to our thirst for blood and our 12th century demands for "justice." He needed to depict a law enforcement culture that drew its very effectiveness and focus from the greater culture of its city and country.

He gave us Flashpoint.

The very last image of the show was not of an angry, unrepentant man being led in chains to the electric chair. We didn't even have the "satisfaction" of hearing a judge tell the bad guy he would be executed by lethal injection, or that he would spend the rest of his life in prison. The last image was of Sergeant Greg Parker gently placing his hand on a man's shoulder, one human being consoling another. The image was startling because the man Sergeant Parker was consoling, Jack Swanson, was the same person who hours earlier had almost killed a room full of doctors.

Every expectation we had going into the programme was shattered as the show progressed.

Sam Braddock, new to Toronto's Strategic Response Team and former special ops in JTF2, never misses a shot. But we learn police work is not about shooting. Sam, unfortunately, is from a very different culture, and he's a little slow to understand.

Sam Braddock: "Why don't we just take down the perp?"
Ed Lane: "He's a subject, not a perp."
Sam Braddock: "He's a guy with a gun."
Jules Callaghan: "He's a father in trouble."

The big guy from JTF2 who never misses a shot is not going to be much help on this first assignment, and Ed Lane knows what he has to do with the newbie. Picking up hospital blueprints, Ed tells Sam, "You need to walk down this hallway, through these double doors, down this set of stairs outside. Now this is dangerous, 'cause you have to cross a busy street to this Timmie's over here. I like two sugar, one cream."

This was not namby-pamby Caring Canucks versus Aggressive Americans (or American-influenced Sam). There were no group hugs at any time. In fact, I have a hard time imagining anyone hugging Ed Lane. The "man with a gun" was taken down in the usual way: disorienting explosive charges, lots of cops with guns converging, and lots of shouting while they put him in cuffs. He wasn't given counseling and sent home--he was sent to prison.

At one point, Sergeant Parker told the distraught man, Jack Swanson, "If I were in your situation I can't tell you I wouldn't do exactly what you're doing." This was not Toronto-speak for "There but for the grace of God go I." And Parker certainly was not saying that Jack Swanson's actions were in any way acceptable. But the Sergeant understood. And we did, too. If something bad enough happens to a "regular guy" he can "just snap" and make a bad decision. Any one of us could end up on the receiving end of a police sniper's rifle.

This series does not portray the superiority of Toronto police culture. Many police forces, even in the US, have specially trained negotiators. The United States military is training more of its soldiers in cultural sensitivity.

There is a long, long way to go. Only months ago, prisoners at Abu Ghraib were beaten, tortured, and forced by their American overlords to strip naked and perform sex acts. Capital punishment is widely performed and enthusiastically supported by the citizens of the US. Americans thirst for blood and humiliation in their entertainment, and in their justice.

Flashpoint is about a group of highly trained police officers trying to keep Toronto safe. It's not a show about American-style justice. Flashpoint is about a culture far removed from the cruelty and inhumanity of 12th century England and 21st century America.

Crime has not changed much over the millennia. Criminals' motivations have not evolved. But our response to crime can change. In the UK, in Europe, in Canada--in the civilised world--our response has indeed changed. We no longer execute our enemies. We act respectfully, even when leading a man in handcuffs to jail. We do not torture or degrade our prisoners, or make fun of their religious beliefs. Our response to crime is an indicator of who we are as a people and a culture.

Keeping our society safe at times may require that we use a rifle or a flash grenade. But the most effective means of keeping our society safe is to cultivate an awareness of and respect for those around us. We're all in this together. Flashpoint teaches us that. It's a lesson worth learning. And it's a lot of fun to watch!


L-girl said...

Thank you for the prominent link on your blog roll! I don't know your blog yet, but I'll take a good look around.

Pearson Moore said...

Hi Laura,

Thanks for your comment!

My blog is not nearly as active as yours. These days I'm putting most of my effort into writing a historical novel, tracing the history of a country from July, 1534, to present day. It's from the perspective of 17 generations of women, starting with a Huron woman whose husband, Domagaya, is abducted by a white man from across the ocean. As proof that this man, Cartier, will bring her husband back in a year, he gives her a golden ring. The novel is called Cartier's Ring, and it is the story of the most fascinating country in the world. I hope to publish in 2011. --Pearson